Thursday, 10 April 2014

Skog, My Mentor

I joined the International Water Management Institute, IWMI, in October 1996, and was assigned to its Pakistan office as its Research Coordinator.  This position reported to the Director of IWMI Pakistan, IWMIPK, and to the Deputy Director General (DDG) of IWMI, who was based at IWMI Head Quarters, IWMIHQ in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Professor Gaylord Skogerboe (Skog) an American, with a wardrobe full of bright colors, tall, obese and blonde hair was the Director of IWMIPK.  For Irrigation Engineers, Skogerboe was a familiar name, he has written a few text books, and I was excited that I will be working with him.

But, there was a problem.  I was interviewed and appointed by IWMIHQ, and Skog was unaware of it, until a week before I went to Pakistan.  Those at IWMI Pakistan were with an impression that I was sent to replace a Senior Researcher (SR) who was very popular among the locals.  The SR was Skog’s graduate student, and Skog too had a lot of respect for the SR.  Obviously, the communication between Skog and IWMIHQ was not great.

There was a reason.  IWMI HQ communicated through emails, but Skog can’t type.  Emails had to be printed, Skog will write his response whenever he returned from field trips, and his secretary will then reply on his behalf.  So, any communication between Skog and the HQ took longer, and it will become public knowledge at IWMI PK almost instantaneously.

It took me a week to realize why I was getting a cold shoulder from staff at IWMI, and Skog too maintained a distance, but took care of me and helped me settled well in Lahore.

In the meantime, I too communicated matters on behalf of HQ to Skog and vice-versa, some he liked, others he ignored.  By mid-December, after two months on the job, we both had to be at HQ in Colombo.  Skog spent time with the DG and DDG, understood why I was sent, and how I have represented activities in Pakistan at HQ over the two-month period.  One evening, he walked to me, hugged me, lifted me in the air (I was 15 kg lighter then) and said that I had been a bridge-builder.  So, after three months on the job Skog accepted me as his ‘Deputy’.  Our relationship improved day by day.  

I noticed how masterful and foresighted Skog was compared to his peers at IWMI.  He ran the largest program of IWMI, and it was the same size as that of the Headquarters.

Skog did not have a policy for capacity-building, but he facilitated a few overseas MS and PhD scholarships for IWMI PK staff.  He opened opportunities for at least 20 Masters students enrolled for degrees in Pakistani Universities.  He made sure that every staff – National or International – published research reports.  He wanted them to learn to write research reports, and was not worried about how great the science in the report was.  He facilitated training of 2000 farmers in a year.  He did not touch a computer, but, introduced Remote Sensing tools to IWMIPK, well before IWMIHQ.  He also taught the support staff how to maintain the gardens, office space, toilets and office cars, and how to document their activities.  He did not tolerate late-comers, and those who do not submit draft reports on time for him to review. 

Skog did not have a policy for uptake, but he developed research with 26 National Water related agencies in Pakistan – some in research, some in implementation and others in policy.  He brought staff from line agencies on secondment to IWMIPK.  His steering committee included Secretaries of Irrigation and Agriculture from all four provinces.  He met with them every six months, massaged their egos, and informed them of IWMI’s progress.  Uptake of IWMI’s products was automatic. 

When travelling with him I was astounded by his drinking habit.  He used 12 ounce tumblers to drink whiskey.  He poured whisky, then ice, then soda, and drank.  He had a few of them at a time.  Half a liter will be gone in no-time, before we sat for dinner.  Then he will say, its the company which makes the food into a meal.  A compliment to those joining him for the meal.  While drinking, we spoke extensively – actually he spoke and I listened.  I am glad I did.

Skog’s lessons started with Clich├ęs.  There were many.  He said that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.  Once I understood what it meant, I learnt how to control anger.  He said that everyone must learn to suffer gracefully.  Since then I managed my disappointments without making myself a bitter person.  He told me there’s a reason for everything, and you will only know at a later stage.  This has become very evident to me many times over the years.  He also said that all bad things come to an end – I added, all good things also should and must come to an end, else, we will not appreciate how good things were.

Skog was borne on the 1st of April, and he joked about it too.  He died in 2006, the day on which he was to present IWMI’s work to an audience at Utah State University.  IWMI’s mission was high on his agenda, even 8 years after he left IWMI.  Had he lived, he will be 80 this year.

I am now finishing my second stint with IWMI.  Four and a half years in late 1990’s, another two and half years now.  I went to Pakistan in late 2013 in my official capacity after 13 years, and I was told that the time Skog and I led was IWMI PK’s golden era.  In reality, I struggled to fill Skog's shoes.    

When my departure after my second stint was announced within IWMI a month ago, I received many complimentary emails from junior colleagues describing me as a caring person and a role model.  I wouldn't have been one, if I did not learn from Skog.  

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Food Inflation Explained

In 1996, when I moved to Lahore, I enjoyed walks through Jumma (Friday) Bazaar.   Friday was a weekend in Pakistan, and the Bazaar I am referring to is an open market place about 4 to 5 ha in extent.  In comparison to the Village Markets I have seen in Sri Lanka, this is possibly about 20 times bigger.  Everything was available, there was a concept aisles, just the way modern super markets were arranged, everything had a row to walk through and buy.  Vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, spices, make-up kits and textiles, all available at a low prices.

As I walked through the fruits aisle, I saw very good looking citrus fruits called Kinos.  These are like large size mandarins, very sweet and very few seeds.  I saw a pile with a sign board planted in the middle, something was written in Urdu, then 8/=.  I assumed the price of a fruit is 8 PRs, or about 20 US cents at that time.  Very acceptable to me,  I gave 10 Rs, wanted the vendor to keep the 2 Rs and started to walk.  I peeled and ate the mandarin and enjoyed the walk -reminiscing on walks through orange orchards in Griffith, Australia.  Then I heard someone calling me in loud voice, clapping his hand vigorously.  It was the vendor, he wanted me to get back, and once I reached him he gave me a bag of another 11 fruits, and the balance of 2 Rs.  Yes, a dozen was 8 Rs.  I smiled at my ignorance, returned home, and enjoyed remaining fruits later.

Last week I was in Lahore, I was hungry, and felt like eating Kinos.  I walked to the street, located a Kino vendor, took two fruits and asked him what would it cost.  He gave me one more, and asked for 20 PRs, ( or 20 US cents).  Three fruits in 1996 would have been 2 Rs (or 5 US cents).

So, in -terms of USD, the fruit price has gone up 400%, and in-terms of PRs, it has gone up by 1000%.  I figured that the rate of depreciation of Pak currency against USD has to be 600%!  My accountant colleagues may correct me here!

Friday, 20 December 2013

Contrasting Cliffs at Ajantha

If one wants to see a contrast between two cliffs, one 'intervened' by men and the other as shaped by nature, Ajantha is the place to see them.

Some 200 to 300 years BC, Buddhist monks required secluded places for them to pray and meditate, and they chose a cliff in a horseshoe shape at Ajantha.  Between the 3 BC and 8 AD, 26 caves were carved inside a cliff, one next to the other.

I have heard of these caves when I was a teenager, but did not have a mental picture of what they could look like.  In one of the Tamil movies I watched as a teenager, the hero was 'caved' when he was kid, and when he grew up, he had a bent back and could not stand straight (It was in Adimaipenn, and the actor was MGR).  

My first exposure to caves in natural state was at Carlsbad caverns in New Mexico in 1980. Since then I have been to a cave at Nepal-China border, where Vyasar dictated Bharatham to Lord Ganesha, and another in Oman, where a large pristine lake exist inside.  But for a man-made cave, Ajantha was my first.

Each of the 26 caves had a large rectangular verandah with an entrance to a rectangular hall about 35 m by 27 m.  The roof must be at least 5 m from the floor.  So, no need to bend.  At the far-end of the hall is a sanctum-sanctorum, where a large Buddha statue is placed.  His fingers touch each other in different forms in different caves, indicating different lessons.  Walls of the hall had sculptures or paintings.  Paintings were not made with paints, instead different color stones/gems were ground into powder, and pasted.

The total length of caves is about 3 km, and to reach them require a small climb.  I found it a bit difficult at the start - steps were too steep, then was able to climb and walk all the way.  The weather was kind.  For those who could not cover the site on foot, there are human-lifts (we called it Pallaku in Tamil) available.

As I walked through, I could not help wonder how it was possible, and what happened to all these skills that were available almost 2500 years ago.  I had been to Varanasi, Moenjadaro and Harappa, where civilization existed some 5000 years ago, but, it was an urban context.  There were houses, roads and even drains.  Ajantha caves are completely remote from any traces of human settlement.  People, the Buddhists, must have just come here to be away from everything else.  I keep wondering why 26 caves.  They could easily accommodate several thousands of worshipers.  Were they in that many numbers?  If so what happened to all of them (the Buddhists)?  Did Hinduism absorb them back into their fold, I wonder.  Is that why Buddhism has survived in many countries - China, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and of course Sri Lanka, but not in India?

I could not resist the thought of stone throwing, war mongering, power seeking monks in Sri Lanka, as I admired the monks who made Ajantha caves.  May be these violent monks should be sent Ajantha to learn what their religion has offered to world.  Just a thought.

I must also mention my visit to Ellora temples.  These are about 100 km from Ajantha, belong to 7 to 9 AD.  Again, a total of 36 temples along the foot-hills of a huge mountain.  They are Hindu, Jain and Buddhist temples, all next to each other.  Instead of being carved inside, these temples are chiseled inside and outside.  We are all familiar with rock sculptures, but a whole temple is something to see to believe.  The temples had towers too.  Again along the walls, many mythical storys of Hinduism.  One was about Ravana, and how Lord Ganesha tricked him to establish the Shiva Lingam at Koneswaram (Trincomalee).  Here again, why 36 temples, how many people were coming to worship, what happened to the technology?  Lots of questions in mind.

I have always admired the forts the Mughals built in India, that was about 400 to 500 years ago.  Fortunately, most of them are well cared for in India and Pakistan.  Its a pity Ajantha and Ellora were neglected at some stage, but thanks to a British hunter, now they are a treat to thousands of tourists every day.  Having known about them for many years, I can now say, been there and seen them!  

Life's good.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Rivalry across Indo-Pak border

As the plane descended to land at Alama Iqbal Airport in Lahore, the electrified fence separating the two countries is very visible. The fence is not a straight line but a zigzag, just the way the relations between the two countries had been for the past 60 or so years.  I started reflecting on my 'encounter'between these two rival nations.

It was late 1990s I was staying at a guesthouse in a Pakistani village near Indian border.  Late in the evening I wanted to have drink, and I asked the caretaker if I could get some whiskey.  He said, oh yes, for sure.  He told me what it would cost, I gave him the money, and in about an hour I had a bottle of whiskey, and the bottle was embossed to state that the whiskey for specially made for Indian Army.

Another time, I was a guest of the Commanding Officer on Pakistani side at flag-down at Wagha border.  This is a daily event, soldiers from both side march towards the gate between the two countries, shout at each other on their ways, bring  respective flags down, then slam the gates and shut it.  Later, both commanders take a back road to meet, hug, express pleasantries, exchange pouches, and return.

That was the nature of animosity along the border, but, then they cross each others borders and shoot and kill at nights.

Recently I spent a week in Pakistan (Lahore and Islamabad).  Both are very nice cities.  Both are cleaner than Delhi, and both have better roads than those in Delhi.  Despite the war, shopping centers are bustling, hardly any police on the streets, Army posted only at key points of entry.  Its hard to imagine there are terrorists around.  But I am sure they are there.  Delhi on the other hand is always under tight security.  One may reason that Pakistani terrorists have left for India, so, less security in Lahore.  Pardon my weird sense of humor.

I have lived in both countries, and I like them both.  People at both end are the same, educated Pakistanis are a bit more sophisticated than the educated Indians.  In Pakistan the educated come from rich background, and in India, more likely from my type of background.  That may be a reason.  I just love Pakistani colors and music.  Although India too is colorful, for some reason I think Pakistani colors are more attractive.

Now, I like going to both countries, but, can't imagine living in either one of them.  India in particular is excellent for tourists but daily life - especially in big cities - is a struggle.    

Monday, 25 November 2013

Finally in Vietnam

When I was young, two countries captured my imagination for their struggle and winning freedom.  One was Bangladesh and the other was Vietnam.

Last week I arrived in Hanoi with a lot of excitement.  The airport is small but orderly.  Visa was on arrival for a fee - of course my visit had to be cleared by the home office prior to landing.  There was order at the airport, I have seen chaos at Jeddah, Teheran, Cairo and Lagos. Even Tashkent a city in a former communist state of Uzbekistan is chaotic.  You could feel the presence of police, and people take instruction and line up as told.  Visa issuance was all electronic.  I applied and was told to wait.  In another 10 minutes or so, my passport page was on TV screen a text to voice translator announced my name - I realized that it was my name that was called from my photo.  I collected the passport, waited at another queue to clear immigration and was out.  My luggage did not join - the connecting time at Bangkok was too short.  Again another queue, fill forms, and was assured that the bags will be delivered to my hotel at 3:30 pm.  I got it at 7:30 pm.  Not bad.  I am used to waiting.

Outside the airport my driver asked me to wait at a spot and went to collect the car.  As I looked up, there was an electronic ticker board showing exchange rates for different currencies, and various stock prices.  I wondered what was defeated in 1975?  Imperialism or Capitalism?  It was a contrast to images I remembered - a girl running without clothes and her body burning with napalm; a colonel executing a Vietcong in cold blood; a helicopter struggling to take off due to overloaded refugees - and many more.

Hanoi (It is Ha Noi actually) is a well laid city of 10 million people.  French architecture mingles with modern buildings.  There's a stink in the air as you walk around, but the city looks beautiful at nights.  I stayed at the French Quarters of Hanoi, good feel, very busy, thousands of motorbikes and scooters - all travel at a constant speed of 20 kmph!  Road pavements are for people to sit, talk, eat or socialize.  If not, scooters are parked neatly like stacked sardines.  I was told that when people meet in an accident, they fix each others vehicles.  Roads are so crowded, so, the damage can't be more than a dent anyway.  No work for insurance companies.

Next morning a tour guide picked me and I was on my way to Ha Long for acruise.  It was prearranged.  The Ha Long bay is heritage listed collection of over 1600 islands - the diameter of these islands are less than their heights.  Met an New York - couple Tom & Marlene, with an adult daughter - Alexandra.  We were a group for the cruise - we enjoyed each others company.  As we cruised lunch was served - sumptuous sea food.

The boat anchored at one of the islands - we had choice of hayaking or pedal boating.  I chose the second one.  Too old for any risky business.  Back to the boat,then to another island for hiking to the top.  Excellent views of sunset, back to the boat for dinner, and to retire for the day.  I sat on the balcony and watched the full moon making its round in a clear sky.  Sales woman on boats came and went trying to sell cigarettes, chips,and alcohol.  They had a hook like the one used to pluck mangoes in Jaffna to exchange goods for cash.  All well arranged and was picturesque.

I was lucky to get a corner room with windows on both sides on the boat - so I was feted with moon light all night.  Next morning started with Taichi, breakfast, cruising to a cave,and back to the boat for cooking demonstration.  Not much to get excited here - we were shown how to make rolls with rice paper and slivers of vegetables, noodles, omelette and sausage.  Interesting and healthy snack.  Enough to keep kids busy for an hour or so.  Followed by lunch and back to the shores.  Ha Long is a must for anyone visiting Hanoi.  A two day one night excursion costs 175 USD.  Not bad at all.

Back in  Hanoi, I tried to make a conversation with young Vietnamese about the war.  I was met with silence and smile.  Almost like the way it was in Jaffna these days.  Finally a Canadian married to a local gave me an explanation - these people are Buddhists, yesterday is gone, tomorrow is not here, let's live the day -that;s the attitude! What an attitude to have!

I wondered why could not we be in SL be like that.  The 'War' makes news everyday in SL.  There are even columnists trying to find who to blame for all what we went through, tracing issues hundreds of years ago.  I think these columnists are old bitter people - hope they die soon - and I can only hope that the younger generation of SL behave like the Vietnam youngsters.  Only time will tell.

I did not have the same excitement when I went to Bangladesh in 2012.  May be it is just another part of the Indian sub-continent I am very much used to.  Although I was a bit disappointed for not getting any reflection on the war, I am glad that I had the opportunity to come.  Not sure if I want to return though.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Jaffna Update

Last Sunday evening when I left Jaffna by a 'Luxury' bus for Colombo, I could not help thinking the last time I did so.  It was in Aug 1980, and my journey from Jaffna to College Station, Texas started with a bus ride.  It was one of the two luxury buses, the one operated by KG Industries, departed from Wellington Theater.   I still remember, many of my friends came to see me off.  I was embarking on a long journey then, but I just did not realize so.  This time, the theater do not exist, no one to see me off, and there were 20 to 30 buses ready to leave Jaffna for Colombo.  Roads are better, driving is still wild, and the music at times was soothing to the ear.  At one stretch it was a collection of remix songs originally sung by PBS.  It was lovely listening to it at mid-night travelling through archaeological sites in Anuradhapura

In Jaffna, temples are full of people, all dressed in new clothes celebrating Deepawali and then Gowri Kaapu in traditional manner.  The second one did not exist during my younger days - at least i did not know about it.  It must have 'migrated' from Tamilnadu recently.  Lot's of money spent at temples rehabilitating or expanding or whatever.

I went to Naga Vihara for the first time in my life.  I have cycled past it many times though.  I was told that it was razed to the floor, but was rebuilt in 1997.  Now an accommodation center is being built.  I am beginning to wonder why I never visited the Vihara when I was young, although I had been to Churches in Jaffna many times?  Something not right in the way my relationship was with God then, I guess.

Living and travelling in Jaffna is easy if one has money.  There's a limited choice of three star hotels, service is adequate, and it costs about 35 USD per night.  A few very good vegetarian restaurants - just in front of Naga Vihara on Stanley road.  Jaffna styled rice and curry will cost 170 LKR, or 1.25 USD.  There are plenty of options for local transport, cabs and three wheelers are around and they come and pick you up when called.  All have meters, but none works.  So, agree on a fare before you get in.  The minimum fare is about 200 LKR for three wheelers, and the cabs are on kilo-meterage.  50 LKR or (40 US Cents) per km.  All is well.

The town is alive and well.  All roads originating from the city center - KKS Rd, Kasthuriar Road, Palaly Road, have new buildings everywhere.  Many of them are four storey buildings.  Mostly occupied, except for the near completion ones.  Sign-posting of all buildings are modern, electricity is available, so at dusk, the city does look very modern.  A few old buildings still remain, possibly the owners do not want to invest.  The road from the Clock-tower to Hospital road is where new police station is.  It remains in 1980s.  I think there are only two theaters still remain, Rajah and Manohara, Rajah is split into one and two.  It is celebrating its 51st anniversary.  I am sure Manohara is older than Rajah.  The road between Muniyappar temple and Hospital road is full of hawkers selling anything and everything.  They do leave a large solid waste behind.  The Municipality need to take this seriously.  Pizza is delivered in style.  I even saw a few stop signs and a set of new traffic lights.  Yes, Jaffna is getting busy, so, some regulation is necessary.

Uniformed police are everywhere, usually checking traffic, just the way you see them in Colombo.  When the sun goes down, its time for the Army.  They stay within their camps during the day times, I think.

So, how do people in Jaffna feel these days.  My sources are a friend during my childhood days, and the Taxi driver I hired for half a day.  Both were censoring themselves when they speak.  I could easily recognize that.  Overall people enjoy the calm that prevails.  The concept of neighborhood is not there.  No one seems to know his neighbor, just like the way we now live in the west.  Is there something wrong with it?  I do not know.  The compound I lived as a kid had four houses.  We lived in one of them and my aunts lived in other three.  Our neighbors did not move in or out.  Now one of the four is sold, others have tenants from Velanai, Kilinochi and somewhere else.  A few of my neighbors remain.

The young are into alcohol.  Liquor shops are everywhere and 'Western Styled' bars in residential areas - not far from temples.  Boys and girls mix more than what my friend would like, exchanging phone numbers, and then get into troubles.  Girls are in scooters, boys are in motor-bikes.  Crime is showing its ugly face.  The culprits display knives and swords in the absence of guns!  Just like the Tamil movies of today - alcohol, mobile phones, scooters, motor-bikes, crime, boys and girls.

Unemployment remains an issue, although there seems to be a lot of money in circulation.  Remittances from overseas must be a big contributor.  I am told that graduates are working in retail shops, or, engaged in private tuition.  It still remains a BIG business.

What is now required is some investment to create employment.  This is one area the diaspora need to work with the provincial and central governments.  Jaffna was never the center for manufacturing.  It did have the cement factory, which is now in ruins.  I wonder what is stopping it re-opened.  Indian cement companies - which are the suppliers of cement now - could be asked to invest with their capital and technology, create employment for locals, and profiteer.  Marine industries can also developed, but, now there's constant conflict with Tamilnadu fishermen.  Demand for cottage industries is very low, but there's scope.

I like to see this aspect - employment - improved when I go there next.  Overall, it was good feeling to be there again, albeit only for 36 hours.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

My Faith

I am a Hindu, because my parents were Hindus.  It was not a choice I made.  I know most people in the world did not choose their religions.

I was brought up as a God fearing child by my parents, I was made aware that if I do something wrong, then I will be sent to hell.  I learnt the religion by watching my grand parents and parents, and doing what they did or wanted me to do.  My grand parents and parents prayed and fasted a lot, and mt grandfather did chores at temples.  So, I too believed in fasting, praying and doing chores at temples.

My formal education in Hinduism started at Grade 1, with a Q&A book on Saivam (Saiva Vinaa Vidai).  I remember the definition of God in that book: 'He is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent'.  I accepted it, and I do so even today.  If one person can know everything everyone knows, can do everything everyone could do and can be everywhere people are present, then He has to be God.  The book did not refer to other religions.

As a teenager I went to a nearby temple almost everyday, and at least once.  Later as a University Student, I put in a lot of time to get things done at a Hindu temple.  Whenever I came back to my home town, Jaffna, again I went to temples everyday.

I was also influenced by Mahatma Gandhi's teachings, that religions are different path to the only God.  I prayed at Churches and Buddhist temples.  As a teenager, I went to a Catholic church every Tuesday, and when I was in the University, I spent time hanging around a Buddhist temple on full moon days. I liked the breeze, moon light and light from all oil lamps lit.

In Sri Lanka all religions are respected.  I often notice in three wheelers in Colombo, there's always a series of Gods and Goddesses from all faiths.  Even at home, I have never heard my elders talking down of another religion.  Recent days, as I travel through rural parts of Sri Lanka, I see a Ganesha sitting under huge trees.  He is not replacing Lord Buddha, but Ganesha is now giving Buddha company.  So are Vishnu, Lakshmi and Murugan.  Almost all Hindu temples in Colombo are flooded with Buddhists, and the Hindu priests are now fluent in Sinhalese to communicate with them.

Once I left Sri Lanka, I had been to many  historic places of worship for Muslims and Christians in Egypt, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Oman, Turkey, Italy, France and Germany. This is on top almost all ancient  Hindu Shrines in Tamilnadu and a few in North India.  Having lived in Muslim countries for nearly 15 years, I find many common beliefs with them as well.

Why am  I like this?  What is it that I want from God?  Am I getting insurance from all religions, so that if one path is blocked, the other could remain open.  I am not sure.

I met Roberto, a Brazilian graduate student in Texas in 1980.  Very helpful person, who wanted to know which Church I belong to? In Texas there are all sorts of Churches.  I told him that I belong to Church of Prathapar.  It was meant to be a silly joke.  But, may be it is what is true.  I seem to have my own opinion and ways of relating to God and practicing religions.  Although I am a Hindu, I do not believe in reincarnation.  I think if I do some thing good I will be rewarded in this birth, and for doing wrong, I will be punished now in this birth.  Although, I could never understand why children are born into poverty, disabled or handicapped.  They have not done anything wrong yet, have they?

It now looks like to that what I told Roberto is not a silly joke, its a state of my mind about God and Religion.