Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Global Famine and Global Feast

Prof Gaddeswarup - one of the many blog-personas, I have met, conversed and related with in this space during last couple of years - sent me a link today to an article about the current food crisis I had blogged about earlier (Global Hunger: The Next Stage of Globalisation...

What struck me was this interesting graph in the report:

Apparently, the food production has increased 3-fold during since 1961, while the world population has slightly doubled from 3bn to 6bn+... and prices have gone down singinificantly (inspite of the current peak)

... and yet we have a "food crisis"!! why?

Which reminded me of an Austrian documentary "We Feed the World", which I had seen some months back. The film was about globalisation and food: "Every day in Vienna the amount of unsold bread sent back to be disposed of is enough to supply Austria's second-largest city, Graz. Around 350,000 hectares of agricultural land, above all in Latin America, are dedicated to the cultivation of soybeans to feed Austria's livestock while one quarter of the local population starves. Every European eats ten kilograms a year of artificially irrigated greenhouse vegetables from southern Spain, which results in water shortages."

The image, which remained stuck in my mind for days, was that of a truck-load of perfectly edible food being dumped in the garbage yard... It was a criminal waste.

The driver of the truck says, "...we take away about 2mn kilos of bread every year, and there is nothing wrong with them. It's no more than 2 day old, fit for anybody to eat... I always drive the same route, I see old people stopping and staring, because they just can't believe what we are doing."

Apparently, the "food crisis" is there because much of what is produced goes waste in the value chain...

One oft-mentioned aspect is the waste that happens by the time the produce reaches the consumer... Mostly prevalent in the developing countries.

For example, in March this year, in India, the Minister of State for Food Processing Industries (FPI) Subodh Kant Sahay, informed the parliament that as much as as Rs.58,000 worth of grains get wasted due to lack of adequate post-harvest infrastructure, i.e., due to lack of cold chains, transportation and proper storage facilities, etc.

What is, however, not highlighted is the food wastage that happens after it reaches the consumer... specially in the developed countries/economies.

So here are some snapshots which I could gather from the net:

  • In the United Kingdom, "a shocking 30-40% of all food is never eaten". About $38bn worth of edible food is thrown away every year, and during the past decade, the amounted of wasted food has gone up by 15%.

  • In the USA, the official surveys indicate that every year more than 160bn Kg of edible food is available for human consumption. Of this, 45bn Kg - including fresh vegetables, fruits, milk, and grain products - are lost to waste by retailers, restaurants, and consumers. By contrast, less than 10% of the wasted food can feed the 30mn people in the US who go hungry on a regular basis.

  • According to a report by US Dept of Agriculture (USDA), about 20% of country's food goes waste, representing an annual value of about $31bn (Though this is a decade-old study, my guess is that, if anything, the numbers would have only inceased over time).

  • Japan is world's biggest importer of food. However, around $100 worth of that food finds its way into bins, which by some estimates is equal or more than what Briton spends on food. Per capita food waste is around $780, and what goes wasted would be sufficient forfeeding 50mn people.

  • Lastly, the other kind of food wastage!. And it is another kind of "global food crisis"... If there are more than a billion malnurished people on the planet, there are an equal number of obese people as well!... This phenomenon, often termed Globesity is yet another indication that the market-led global food supply chain carries the food to wrong places!!!

    Somewhat related earlier posts:
  • Global Hunger: The Next Stage of Globalization
  • India: Starving on a Mountain of Grains
  • Is there a "Suicide" in your Food?

  • Sunday, April 13, 2008

    Ekalavya gets into a B-School...

    We continue with our Parable of Modern-Day Ekalavya...

    Thanks to the recent Supreme Court judgement, Ekalavya had applied and got into a B-school through the "OBC quota" seats

    ...and immediately hit the glass ceiling described as "Criteria specified in Category VI" in the Supreme Court judgement!!

    He could get the admission, because he had qualified, because he belonged to the "reserved" OBC category, and because he did not belong to the "creamy layer" criteria specified in the judgement.

    His parents did not fall in the categories of Constitutional Posts, i.e.,

  • President of India
  • Vice-President of India
  • Judges of the Supreme Court and of the High Courts
  • Chairman and Members of UPSC and of the State Public Service Commission
  • Chief Election Commissioner
  • Comptroller and Auditor-General of India
  • Persons holding constitutional positions of similar nature as above

    He was also not the progeny of those falling into the Service Category or the category of Armed Forces including Paramilitary Forces, i.e.,
  • Class I & II officers in Central or State services
  • Class I & II officers who may have expired or suffered permanent incapacitation, but had the benefit of employment in any International Organisation like UN, IMF, World bank, etc., for a period of not less than 5 years, prior to that.
  • Employees in Public Sector Undertakings
  • Officers holding equivalent or comparable posts in PSUs, Banks, Insurance Organisations, Universities, etc. (and also to equivalent or comparable posts and positions under private employment, pending the evaluation of the posts on equivalent or comparable basis in these institutions)
  • Persons who hold the rank of Colonel and above in the Army and to equivalent posts in the Navy and the Air Force and the Paramilitary Forces

    In any case the above would not have qualified for reservations due to the "Criteria specified in Category VI"...
    (yes, yes, I am coming to what this criteria is... Let there be some suspence to the story! ;0)

    This "Criteria specified in Category VI", however, did apply to the sons and daughters of other categories.

    For instance, it applied to sons and daughters of Professional Class and those engaged in Trade and Industry, e.g.,
  • Persons engaged in profession as a doctor, lawyer, chartered accountant, income tax consultant, financial or management consultant, dental surgeon, engineer, architect, computer specialist, film artists and other film professional, author, playwright, sports person, sports professional, media professional or any other vocations of like status
  • Persons engaged in trade, business and industry

    ...and it also applied to the progeny of the Property Owners, e.g.,
  • persons belonging to a family (father, mother and minor children) which owns only irrigated land which is equal to or more than 85% of the statutory ceiling area (which is 25 acres), etc.
  • owners of coffee, tea, rubber,mango,citrus, apples, etc., plantations
  • owners of vacant land and/or buildings in urban agglomerations

    But, what was this "Criteria specified in Category VI"?

    This was the final "Income/Wealth Test", meant to exclude the "creamy layer" - it excluded people coming from families with sufficient financial means. Based on the famous Indra Sawhney (Mandal) SC Judgement, this criteria excluded sons and daughters whose parents had an annual income of more than Rs 2.5lacs (Rs, 250,000).

    Happily and fortunately, this criteria, which would have excluded him from admissions, did not apply to Ekalavya. He did not belong to the "creamy layer". His parents did not hold Constitutional Posts, or were in the Service Category. They were also not in the Professional Class, or engaged in Trade and Industry, with an annual income exceeding Rs 2.5lacs. And, of course, they owned no property, as described in the judgement.

    But Ekalavya was crestfallen and dejected - actually shattered - when I met him.

    "There is no way, I can get into this B-School," he told me.

    "But why?", I asked him. "You have qualified, and you are not in the "creamy layer"."

    "But where will I get the money to pay the fee?"

    "What's the problem?", I said. "You can get education loan from a bank, can't you? Everyone says how simple education loans are nowadays. And you can pay that back once you get the job. Look at the average B-school salaries these days!"

    "But do you know? The IIMs almost doubled up their fee just a week before the Judgement." he spat. "It is close to Rs 10lacs now... Other will follow soon, I am sure."

    "How does that matter to you?", I could not comprehend. "What is Rs. 10lacs? You can get the education loan, and pay it back when you get the job. After all, your salary package will compensate for the fee hike."

    "Yes, this is what everyone tells me. Once in the job, you can easily cover your costs." he said. "But you need money to get into, and through, a B-school, don't you?."

    It was then that he shared the glass ceiling - or the Combo of B-school Fee Hike and India Banks' Association's Model Education Loan Scheme for Pursuing Higher Education in India, which is followed by all banks with minor modifications.

    "Not being from the "creamy layer"", he said, "I need to take a loan of at least more than Rs 7.5lacs (The max recommended limit is Rs 10lacs) to pay the fee. I also need money to live and eat during those two years. But that loan requires as, the document says, "co-obligation of parents together with tangible collateral security of suitable value"."

    tangible collateral security of suitable value!! What is that!!?

    I read through the Model Education Loan Scheme about the collateral security. It read:
    "The security can be in the form of land/ building/ Govt. securities/ Public Sector Bonds/Units of UTI, NSC, KVP, life policy, gold, shares/mutual fund units/debentures, bank deposit in the name of student/ parent/ guardian or any other third party with suitable margin."

    Ekalavya glared at me. "Please tell me,", he challenged. "...all you who keep talking about "creamy layer". I am not the "creamy layer" and therefore, I am entitled to what you call "reservations". But also because I am not the "creamy layer", the banks would not give me loan to see me through my education."

    No! I have no anwers for Ekalavya. Maybe only a solace that, OBC or not, - on the income criteria - more than 95% people in this country do no belong to the "creamy layer"!

  • Thursday, April 10, 2008

    "Alternative Perspective" on Reservations/ OBC/ Merit/ Quota/ Discrimination, etc

    Today the Supreme Court gave the verdict upholding the 27% reservations for the OBCs in IITs, IIMs and other Central educational institutions but excluded the creamy layer (i.e., the children of constitutional functionaries including the President, judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts, members of the Union Public Service Commission, Groups A and B or Class I or II officers of the All-India Central and State services and children of public sector employees) from the benefit.

    Just thought it appropriate to share the past 14-15 postings on:

    Alternative Perspective on Reservation, meritocracy, OBC quota, etc.
    (click to access)

    To me, rightly or wrongly, this makes perfect sense... After all, you have to change the system to change the human dynamics in that system.

    However, lest the "manufactured merit" churned out by the coaching centers feel that "their" rightful seats (due to the freak circumstances of their birth, and the coaching institutes) are being taken away from them, here is a clarification:

      "In the 2007-08 budget, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram allocated Rs.26.98 billion for central educational institutions under the HRD ministry providing for 54 percent increase in the number of seats.

      According to officials, in the budget for 2008-09 an allocation of about Rs.25.22 billion has been made for central universities - IITs, IIMs, NITs etc, for the purpose.

      Following protests from various quarters, an Oversight Committee recommended a 54 percent expansion (over three years) in central educational institutions so that the number of general seats is not reduced."

    The SC judgement vindicates what Michael Young - who coined the term Meritocracy - wrote in 2001 (I had quoted it earlier):

      "It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.

      Ability of a conventional kind, which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random, has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education.

      A social revolution has been accomplished by harnessing schools and universities to the task of sieving people according to education's narrow band of values.

      With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams.... The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself."

    Wednesday, April 09, 2008

    Global Hunger: The Next Stage of Globalization

    The march of interconnected global forces does not cease.... global trade, global finance, global village, global terror, global war on terror, global corporations, global warming, global travel, global citizens, sub-prime crisis, global energy crisis, etc.... And now Global Food Crisis! seems only yesterday, that one heard people talking about the benefits of globalisation, and how now there is plenty of food to feed the world... And given time (and "good" governance) it will all trickle down.

    In any case, here is a slice of news headlines from global press:

  • Who Caused the World Food Crisis?
    Financial Post (April 8, 2008)
    ..."We are now by all accounts in the midst of a global food crisis: key grain prices were up 40% to 130% in the last year, people are protesting and hardship is mounting. But it could soon be worse. Governments and agencies all over the world are gearing up for a global "New Deal" on agriculture policy to solve the food crisis, which means the people who brought us the food crisis are the same people who now want to fix it.

    The World Bank reports that prices of staples have jumped 80% since 2005. The price of rice hit a 19-year high last month, and wheat rose to a 28-year high, twice the average price of the last 25 years. Factors behind the surge in prices are varied, including bad weather in some regions, soaring demand from growing populations, and US$100-a-barrel oil".

  • The Looming Food Crisis
    The Guardian (August 29, 2007)
    ..."As the US, Europe, China, Japan and other countries commit themselves to using 10% or more alternative automobile fuels, farmers everywhere are rushing to grow maize, sugar cane, palm oil and oil seed rape, all of which can be turned into ethanol or other biofuels for automobiles. But that means getting out of other crops.

    The scale of the change is boggling. The Indian government says it wants to plant 35m acres (140,000 sq km) of biofuel crops, Brazil as much as 300m acres (1.2m sq km). Southern Africa is being touted as the future Middle East of biofuels, with as much as 1bn acres (4m sq km) of land ready to be converted to crops such as Jatropha curcas (physic nut), a tough shrub that can be grown on poor land. Indonesia has said it intends to overtake Malaysia and increase its palm oil production from 16m acres (64,000 sq km) now to 65m acres (260,000 sq km) in 2025."

  • Fear of Rice Riots as Surge in Demand Hits Nations across the Far East
    The Times - Online (April 8, 2008)
    ..."The US Department of Agriculture believes that the world will suffer a 29 million tonne discrepancy this year between what it needs to feed itself and what it can actually produce. Markets have been quick to recognise this and the traditional Asian staples of soyabeans, palm oil and pork have all soared.

    Many grain and edible oil markets have also been squeezed by what some observers believe is an unsustainable conflict between cars and stomachs. Land that might previously have been used to feed people is increasingly planted with crops designed for conversion to biofuels, forcing unexpected rises in the prices of everything from tofu to instant noodles."

  • Food Prices Rising across the World
    CNN (March 25, 2008)
    ..."From subsistence farmers eating rice in Ecuador to gourmets feasting on escargot in France, consumers worldwide face rising food prices in what analysts call a perfect storm of conditions. Freak weather is a factor. But so are dramatic changes in the global economy, including higher oil prices, lower food reserves and growing consumer demand in China and India...

    ...Clashes over bread in Egypt killed at least two people last week, and similar food riots broke out in Burkina Faso and Cameroon this month.

    But food protests now crop up even in Italy. And while the price of spaghetti has doubled in Haiti, the cost of miso is packing a hit in Japan...

    ...Among the driving forces are petroleum prices, which increase the cost of everything from fertilizers to transport to food processing. Rising demand for meat and dairy in rapidly developing countries such as China and India is sending up the cost of grain, used for cattle feed, as is the demand for raw materials to make biofuels.

    What's rare is that the spikes are hitting all major foods in most countries at once. Food prices rose 4 percent in the U.S. last year, the highest rise since 1990, and are expected to climb as much again this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    As of December, 37 countries faced food crises, and 20 had imposed some sort of food-price controls"....

  • Stuffed and Starved: As Food Riots Break Out Across the Globe...
    Democracy Now! (April 8, 2008)
    ..."Global food prices have risen dramatically, adding a new level of danger to the crisis of world hunger. In Africa, food riots have swept across the continent, with recent protests in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mauritania and Senegal. In most of West Africa, the price of food has risen by 50 percent——in Sierra Leone, 300 percent. In the United States there has been a 41 percent surge in prices for wheat, corn, rice and other cereals over the past six months".

  • Grains Gone Wild
    New York Times (April 8, 2008). By Paul Krugman
    ..."These days you hear a lot about the world financial crisis. But there’s another world crisis under way — and it’s hurting a lot more people.

    I’m talking about the food crisis. Over the past few years the prices of wheat, corn, rice and other basic foodstuffs have doubled or tripled, with much of the increase taking place just in the last few months. High food prices dismay even relatively well-off Americans — but they’re truly devastating in poor countries, where food often accounts for more than half a family’s spending.

    There have already been food riots around the world. Food-supplying countries, from Ukraine to Argentina, have been limiting exports in an attempt to protect domestic consumers, leading to angry protests from farmers — and making things even worse in countries that need to import food..."

  • Global Food Crisis Looms as Grain Prices Soar
    Business Day (April 4, 2008)
    ..."World Bank president Robert Zoellick called yesterday for a co-ordinated response to the spiralling prices, which “were exacerbating shortages, hunger and malnutrition around the globe”. He said 33 countries could face social unrest because of higher food and energy prices....

    ....“We need a new deal for global food policy that should focus not only on hunger and malnutrition, access and supply, but also on the interconnections with energy, yields, climate change, investment, the marginalisation of women and others, and economic resilience and growth.""

  • Hunger is set to grow as global food stocks fall
    The Times of India (March 8, 2008)
    ..."Global wheat stocks were down to 107 million MT (metric tonnes) in 2007, compared with over 197 million MT in 2001; rice stocks were just 71 million MT compared with 136 million MT...

    ....In 2007, the world supply of wheat was affected due to drought in Australia, a freeze in US and lower production in Ukraine. The price surge was also fuelled by the new US law saying the use of ethanol for automobiles should be doubled to 15 billion gallons by 2015. Ethanol is made from corn..."

  • The World's Eating Disorder
    The Standard - Hongkong (April 2, 2008)
    ..."Global food prices rose 35 percent in the year to the end of January, according to the United Nations, accelerating an upturn that began in 2002. Since then, prices have risen 65 percent....

    ....The Chinese, who ate just 20 kilograms of meat per capita in 1985, now eat 50kg a year. Each kilogram of beef takes about 7kg of grain to produce, which means land that could be used to grow food for humans is being diverted to growing animal feed.

    As the West seeks to tackle global warming, a drive towards greener fuels is also compounding the problem. It is estimated that one in four bushels of corn from this year's US crop will be diverted to make fuel ethanol.

    Palm oil is also at record prices because of demand to use it for biofuel, causing pain for low-income families in Indonesia and Malaysia, where it is a staple.

    But despite the rising criticism of biofuels, the US corn-fed ethanol industry enjoys wide political support because it helps farmers."

    etc. etc....

    And so we may continue to see an increase in these global trends as have been happening during last few weeks/months... e.g.,

  • Food riots have been reported from Kolkata to Namibia, Zimbabwe, Morocco, Uzbekistan, Austria, Hungary, Mexico, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique and Senegal etc. during last few weeks/months.

  • The Philippine government had asked fast-food chains and restaurants to serve half portions of rice to cut waste,

  • China, Egypt, Vietnam and India, accounting for more than a third of global rice exports, have curbed rice exports.

  • Pakistan sent troops to guard flour mills in January.

  • Inflation in India rose to 7%

  • In Vietnam, where consumer prices rose more than 16 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2008, strikes are becoming more frequent.

  • Even in Singapore, one of Asia's wealthiest countries which maintains tight restrictions on public assembly, ten people were detained by police last month after they held a rally, without a permit, to protest rising living costs.


  • Tuesday, April 08, 2008

    The Economics of Post_Olympics

    As the Beijing Olympic Torch/Flame - paradoxically, the universal symbol (!) meant to remind the participating countries about "the lasting unity of mankind" - battles its way through the protestors on its way from Olympia to Beijing, there is another aspect worth considering.

    Why do countries compete to host the Olymics? What is the economics of event?

    Obviously, such a huge event attracts large investments, builds infrastructure, brings in tourism revenue,etc... And leads to a jump in GDP. In addition, there is also earnings through broadcasting rights, sponsorship money, licensing of logo and merchandise, etc.

    But what happens after that?

    One study compared the GDP growth rate of the hosting countires from 1952 onwards, and compared the deviation in country's average GDP growth rate for 12 year duration (4 pre-Olymic years and 8 post-Olymic years)

    This is what the graph shows:

    ... That is, prior to the Olympics and during the Olympic year GDP growth is higher than average - maxing out at nearly 1.5% above average GDP in the 3rd year before the Olympics. But once the Olymics are over, the growth rate falls much below the average...

    Another recent study described on Morgan Stanley's Global Economic Forum also narrates similar trends:

    "We looked at the economic performance of the Olympic host countries (OHCs) since 1956. The striking common feature is an acceleration in GDP growth in the year in which the Olympics were held, followed by a year of sub-par growth. Of the 11 cases we examined since 1956, only the US (Atlanta) in 1996 did not show a slowdown following the Olympics. The slowdown was particularly stark in Australia (1956), Japan (1964), the US (1984) and Korea (1988). Spain actually fell into a recession in 1993. In the two most recent Olympics (Athens and Sydney), both Greece and Australia decelerated by 1.5-2.0% between the year before and that after the Olympics.

    ...Average GDP growth deviation from trend tends to decelerate from 1.1% in the year prior to the Olympics to 0.9% in the year of the Olympics, followed by a slowdown to -1.2% in the following year...

    ....We also examined the performance of the currencies of OHCs (for post 1972 Olymics)... In Canada (1976), the US (1984) and Spain (1992), the currencies of the OHCs depreciated significantly in the two years after the Olympics. In the case of Sydney (2000), the AUD weakened modestly in the ensuing year. However, in the cases of Seoul (1988) and Athens (2004), USD/KRW and EUR/USD remained essentially flat over the two-year period, while the USD actually strengthened following the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Therefore, with a few exceptions, the currency of the host country depreciated when its economic growth decelerated following the Olympics."

    [The article, interestingly, while acknowedging "the historical regularity with which the growth rate of the country that hosts the Summer Olympics tends to show a pronounced slowdown following the Games", goes on to "conclude" (?!) that in case of Beijing Olympics, "there are special factors that are likely to mute the magnitude of this slowdown."]

    Monday, April 07, 2008

    ...let them eat cakes and biscuits!

    As the inflation in India spirals up to 7%, and the prices of the essential commodities, specially cereals and pulses, have shot up, here are two very creative explanantions by two ministers.

    According to Sharad Pawar, the President of BCCI (Board of Control of Cricket in India) and also, btw, the Agriculture Minister, "The dietary habits are changing. Demand is also going up."

    If one goes by his understanding, the changing food habits of Indians in south and north-east are the culprits. The inhabitants of these states, who were earlier consuming rice, have now started eating chaptis!!!

    No, he did not explain why the price of rice is also spiralling up.

    The other explanation comes from the Commerce Minister Kamal Nath. While participating the gala show - Incredible India@60 in Singapore (April 4-7, 2008), he explained that increased prices of the food are due to increased food consumption by the poor people. "We have great supply-side challenges in India at the moment with 15 million people moving from having one meal a day to two meals a day."


    Maybe, like many others in this country, they also live in another time, another place... where every poor Indian lives on cakes and biscuits!

    Sunday, April 06, 2008

    My "Encounters" with Maoists/ Naxals

    Well, to be honest, I did not have any such "direct" encounters... only some "vicarious" ones

    One of the most recent ones was today, when I finished reading Sudeep Chakravarty's travelogue "Red Sun: Travels through the Naxalite Country"...

    For those who have not read the book, it is highly recommended. It breaks through the veil of denial, which the aspiring urban middle-class, the "India Shining" media, the politicians and bureaucrats tend to deny/under-represent in the public awareness/ discourse... Even when this growing phenomenon is publicly noted, it is seen/described as a regional problem; the news gets covered in the regional newspapers/editions...

    However, if one pays attention, the phenomenon is growing, and becoming increasingly noticeable. I tried to find out and in Google News, there were 210 news items on "naxal maoist" in last one week....

    And as the timeline shows, the trend has shot up in last 3-4 years...

    In any case, when the Prime Minister of India describes "Maoists" as the "single largest internal security threat" (as he did last year) - and accepts that 165 of the 600-odd districts are affected by this threat - then, if you are travelling into the hinterlands of India, the chances are more than one-in-four that you have a direct or vicarious brush with this "threat"

    (These 165 districts, incidentally, are spread across 14 Indian states. Among the other non-Maoist-effected states are the otherwise-troubled J&K, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and Meghalaya - thus, leaving only eight Indian states as "peaceful")

    Reading the book, brought back these memories of my "encounters" during last few months. During last couple of months, I had a chance of travelling across the interiors of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chattisgarh in connection to some assessment of NGOs... This was also an opportunity to cross-check the official line that the Maoists - described as "these thugs/ anti-national elements/ criminals" etc. - resist "development" (industrialisation, mining projects, large dams, investments, job-creation, building of infrastruction, etc.), because they feeds on poverty, misery and lack of development and so on.

    Here are some snapshots from my "vicarious" experiences:

    Snapshot 1:
    I was in Hazaribagh (Jharkhand). My hosts were one of the largest - and oldest - NGO in the region (Bihar & Jharkhand). The NGO was started by four engineering graduates in 1971, who were inspired by the ideas of Gandhi, Binoba Bhave and Jai Prakash Narain. They had continued working in programs related to socio-economic development (e.g., supporting micro-entrepreneurship), health & sanitation, education, community mobilisation through forming SHGs, etc... And they covered virtually the whole of Jharkhand and Bihar.

    "Just out of curiosity," I asked, "all that you are doing is in the region heavily infested by Maoists. And all that you are doing goes against what these people stand for. Your funding comes from foreign, mostly foreign donors, and your work helps people becoming self-sufficient... And so, they will not have any reason to join the Maoist revolution. Don't you come in conflict with the Maoists?"

    "Not really," one of the founders told me, "yes, sometime they accost our people. But you only have to tell them that you are part of "Samiti" - that's how we are known - and they let us do our work. We may not agree with them, but they do agree with what we are doing.... No, there is no conflict of objectives."

    Snapshot 2:
    This was in the interiors of Chattisgarh. My hostess, an old self-effacing missionary sister, managed an NGO which had worked in the four districts of the state in area of healthcare since 1969. Over a period of time, they had established more than 90 Rural Health Centers (serving 1200 villages), managed by registered nurses, and supported by Mitanis - the Village Level Healthworkers - who were trained by the organisation. It had pioneered a Community Health Insurance scheme, at an yearly premium of "2kg of rice", which provides comprehensive healthcare to more than 90,000 poor and tribals in the region.

    The focus of their activities, however, goes beyond the just the physical health. It is a holistic approach, which delves deeper into the causes of ill-health, and deals with them through people-centred activities like leadership training, health education, livelihood-promotion, formation of self-help-groups and tackling the various antecednts of malnutrition. It is more like a social movement, than just a healthcare venture...

    When I asked the sister the same question, she said, "No, we never had any problems with them. Maybe, we are not in "The Corridor". But even if we were in their area, why would there be any problems? We, these women in the SHGs, have often achieved the same aims, like fair disbursal of money from government schemes, social justice in a caste-ridden village, through more peaceful means." She thought about it, and then added, "we do have problems of wild elephants, though."

    That was January 26th, a very cold day in Pathalgaon. We celebrated the Republic Day by hoisting the Tri-colour...

    Snapshot 3:
    "You see that hill over there? Beyond that is "The Corridor"," Mr Meher - the "Public Relations Officer" of the NGO I was visiting - mentioned in passing, as if he was describing the location of a roadside dhaba. It was early morning, and I had gone to see the "innovative schools" which the organisation runs in the interiors of Orissa. These classes were held in the premises of the local government schools.

    "No government teacher comes to teach here," Mr Meher told me, "but we use their building before the school timings. We recruit a local educated youth to teach the basics of reading and maths, and about health, hygiene, environment, their rights and responsibilities, etc."

    There was, of course, an incentive to attend for the kids - free soya milk and bread... which, of course, was also a great attraction for many to even bring their toddler siblings to the school :0)

    Later is the day, when we were returning, I asked him about the Maoists. "Your activities cover the whole of Orissa. Even though an NGO, you are almost like a mid-size private-sector company with a "turnover" of Rs. 250cr and employing 1200-1500 professionals" - they are into everything from micro-finance, micro-insurance (with tie-ups with some of the well known corporate insurance companies), micro-enterprise, social development (from running a home for destitute women to SHGs for village craftsmen... including a chain of retail outlets for the produce from the SHGs) - "You are trying to bring income, prosperity, self-sufficiency at grassroot level. Doesn't your work come in conflict with the Maoists?"

    He weighed the question, looked at me quizically, and said, "We are doing things which are good for people. Why would we come in conflict with anyone? Yes, there were instances when one of our people were caught by them. But we explained, and they released him."...

    Snapshot 4:
    I was packing my bags to return the next day, and glanced at the headlines of local edition of Indian Express. Its headline screamed of about the murder of an ex-surpanch by the Maoists/Ultras - he was supposed to be a police informer. What caught my eyes was this line in the news:

    "The ultras left behind the posters in which they warned against sale of liquor, trafficking of timber and encroachment of tribal land".

    I was/am confused. Do I sympathise with the violent "ultras"? NO!... There are better - non-violent - ways...

    On the other hand, shouldn't such posters be distributed by the government/ state to its populace?...

    We live in confusing times...

    Friday, April 04, 2008

    On Not Being a "Bystander"

    This is in continuation of the last post - Are You a "Bystander"?...

    There are words one reads, which make sense and remain etched in the memory.

    Here are some for me:

    "I wish the ring had never come to me...I wish none of this had happened. So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."
    - The Fellowship of the Ring

    "The chain of steps determine the path, but the first step makes the path appear."
    - Sufi Poet Attar.

    "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."
    - MK Gandhi

    "Lay out a well-reasoned argument in front of a thinking person and you might change their mind. Change enough people's minds and you might change the world. Unfashionable, I know..."
    - Fanny Armstrong (Director of Drowned Out: We Can't Wish Them Away)

    "some questions do not have clear answers; nevertheless, it is important to raise those questions."
    - Unknown

    "Whatever you do will become insignificant, but it is very important to do it."
    - MK Gandhi

    "“Never underestimate the power of a handful of individuals to change the world. After all, it’s the only thing that ever does.”
    - Margaret Mead

    "The reasonable person adapts to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to themself ... therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable person."
    - George Bernard Shaw

    "It is remarkable how much you can achieve when it does not matter who gets the credit.”
    - attributed to Margaret Mead or Harry Truman

    "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
    - MK Gandhi