Tuesday, 17 November 2015

CGIAR in South Asia

IWMI is one of the members of the CGIAR, the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, was my employer for seven years.  The CGIAR was founded in 1971, and four research centers formed the core of it.  Since then the members increased to nineteen and now to fifteen.  One of its founder institute, IRRI and its researchers in late 1970s inspired my education and career.  I always considered that it would be a privilege to work for CGIAR.  My ambition came to fruition when I joined IWMI in late 1996 for a four year period, and then returned to IWMI in 2011 for another three years.  During the seven year period, I held senior management positions, lived as IWMI employee in three South Asian countries, and conducted research in all South Asian countries, except in Afghanistan and Bhutan.  It is imperative that a Senior Officer of CGIAR to engage with National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) in host countries, so, I was able to witness the progress the National Systems have made between 1990s and 2010s.

During the 1970s CGIAR Centers were largely concerned about food security of the world, and it’s poor in particular.  Ambitious breeding programs, spearheaded by IRRI increased rice production rapidly across South Asia.  IRRI directly engaged with every NARS in Asia and improved their capacity.  It trained more than 20,000 researchers over the years.   By 2000, Asian rice productivity tripled per unit of land, and doubled for unit of water evaporated.  Other commodity centers have similar success stories to convey with pride.

These centers were home for many eminent scientists from the west who willingly gave up their comforts to serve the poor in exotic lands.  Now, the supply of experts to contribute to CGIAR centers from the west has dwindled over the years.  Higher education in Agriculture, especially to produce primary commodities is no longer a priority in Universities in the west.  In most developed countries less than 5% of the population is in agriculture, and the food is produced by major corporations.  This production model has no resemblance to the subsistence level of production in poorest parts of Asia, where CGIAR wishes to serve.  In the absence of appropriately trained experts from the west, CGIAR Centers now draw their cadre either from those who are redundant in the west, or from those who are extremely successful in Asian NARS.  Taking an Asian from a NARS and appointing him or her as an expert in his home country adds very little to the intellectual pool or injection of new ideas.  It just depletes their National capacity.  Having said this, I am aware that there are exceptions.  There are cases where, professional jealousies, bureaucracy, red-tape and lethargy zap energy from many bright minds in South Asia and make them under productive.  For them, the CGIAR Centers are very attractive, not just to increase their income, but for their self-esteem as well.

Over the years, CGIAR’s mission has broadened from food security to food security and poverty alleviation within sustainable ecosystems.  These three goals, food security, poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability are noble ones, but not simultaneously attainable within socio-economic constraints in South Asia.   For example, land fragmentation and tenure deter farmers from investing their time or money in the Eastern Gangetic Plains of South Asia.  Almost 80% of the farmers have less than 1 ha of land.  These farmers are well aware that no matter how much time and money they invest in such a small piece of land, they will remain poor and will not meet the needs of their families.  In Bihar, where village after village live below poverty line, only about 2/3rd the population has anything to do with Agriculture, and even for them, Agriculture provides about 1/3rd of their family income.  Men are in cities in India and in Arabian Gulf, toiling to raise their kids living in a village in Bihar.  I believe these socio-economic constraints such as land fragmentation or caste are the invisible elephants, and are beyond CGIAR’s ability to tame.

So, what should CGIAR Centres do in South Asia?  It could declare victory over food insecurity in Asia and get out.  OR, it has to redefine its agenda.

The new role could be focused on job creation in rural parts of poor-Asia to prevent urban migration and adequate income generation.  The current generation of farmers may not shift away from their lands, but their children want to.  I have never met a child of a farmer in Asia, who wants to be in farming.  If they abandon their inheritance of even smaller parcels of land, there will be a lot of abandoned small parcels of land, threatening the victory over food insecurity.

I feel it’s time that CGIAR plans this transition.  In the interim, the CGIAR could formulate think-tanks to facilitate evaluation of market-oriented institutions, which are capable of breaking social (caste), economic (economy of scale), supply chain (diesel supplies), and structural constraints (small land parcels).

Well, looks like I have spent my two-cents already!

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Witnessing Deaths

As I grow older and older, I seem to know a lot of dead people.  Two of my sisters have died; my parents have died; three of my uncles have died; many of my teachers at high school have died.  The movie directors who inspired me, the music directors who hypnotized me, the playback singers who eased my heart, the actors who made me cry and laugh, the sportsmen who enthralled me, and the politicians who gave me hope and despair  – well, some of them are dead too. The scary fact is that some of my classmates and batch-mates are also DEAD. They would have been plus or minus five years of my age.

Yes, I am aware that death is something very certain, but when the news falls on my ears, it arouses memories and grief – the degree depends on how close we were, whenever we shared our lives.

The news of death reaches me at least once a month these days.   But witnessing death is different to hearing the news of death.  It’s instructive, I think.  I will share my observations of two men, whom I knew from my very early days, both are now dead.  I remember both of them as tall men, capable of very clearly articulating what they wanted to say, and commanded attention of others when present.

The first one, just like any other men, cared a lot about his family, enjoyed a cigarette and an occasional drink.  As his children got married and left home, he spent time publishing his views on issues, especially about children and religion.  When his health failed, he was bed-ridden for about six to nine months, and then he died.  He was 74 at death.

The second one, again just like any other men, cared a lot about his family, did not smoke or drink.  He always wanted to help anyone knocked on his doors, and he did more of that, when his children got married and left home.  When his health failed, he was bed-ridden for about six to nine months, and then he died.  He was 84 at death.

The second one enjoyed his grand-kids and society about a decade longer than the first one.  That is the reward for taking care of your health when young.  But, the pain and suffering before death had been the same for both men.  Modern day health facilities ensure that every possible attempt is made to save one’s life, even if the body has become vegetative.

So, what have I learnt by witnessing these deaths?  Am I advising you that you should take care of your health, and enjoy your grand kids longer ?  No, because you know that already.

What I have learnt and want to share with you is, prepare yourself to be in pain and agony for a year before your death.  It’s just like the way you waited outside the principal’s class room waiting to be caned.  It will not alleviate the pain, but, the thought, that you already knew it was coming, will help you face it better.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Gang Rapes in Delhi and Jaffna

Incidents:  In Dec 2012, a Physiotherapy student was raped in a roaming bus across Delhi.  Her body was penetrated with iron rod, she and her boy friend were thrown onto the street.  She developed various complications in multiple organs, and despite attempts to save her, she died after a month.  On the 13th of May 2015, a teenage girl was gang raped and murdered in Jaffna, my home town.

Response of Police:  Delhi Police acted swiftly.  First the bus was identified from CCTV records, then the owner, then the driver, and then three more.  Statements provided by the victim's boy friend were very helpful to the Police.  One of the four was an adolescent.  Another was arrested in his hometown in Bihar, about 1000 Km away from the incident.  Police in Jaffna did not take the incident seriously when the girl was reported missing on the same day.  It dismissed the complaint as-if the girl has eloped with her boyfriend.  But, it acted swiftly when the brother found the girl's body at a remote site.  Three were arrested immediately.  Following inquiry another six were arrested.  One was a foreign national of 19 years age.  He managed to leave Police custody in Jaffna and traveled to Colombo, 400 km away. But again arrested in Colombo.  Police who had mishandled his arrest in Jaffna are being transferred.

Response of the Society:  In both cases, there was an outrage, differed only in proportion to the size of the cities.  Delhi with 21 million people was no comparison to Jaffna, where a few hundred thousands live.  Delhi saw massive demonstrations for weeks - barricades everywhere, tires were burnt 24X7, water canons and tear gas were brought to disperse crowds and public property were damaged.  Scores were arrested, charged, prosecuted or released.  The protests went beyond Delhi to other states, speaking different languages, but sharing similar pains.  Civil society was out on the street demanding Justice, not just for the victim, but for all victims of similar crime. A Policeman died during protests.  Jaffna too responded in similar manner, schools went on strike, markets were closed etc.  There were similar protests in other Tamil speaking districts of North and East.  130 demonstrators were arrested, and two Policemen suffered minor injuries.  The Police was determined not to seek Army's help, A very wise decision.  Army is not a trusted institution in Jaffna.  Police's inability to communicate in Tamil well with locals was a disadvantage.  The rest of the country remained aloof to the plight for almost two weeks, until a Female Attorney at Law, Shamila Daluwatte called for a protest in Colombo (https://www.facebook.com/shamila.daluwatte).  A muted response at the end, still a welcome one.

Response of the Politicians:  In Delhi, all political parties condemned the violence.  The Parliament acted expeditiously and enacted laws to punish criminals quickly.  One of the four accused hung himself in his cell, the adolescent was sent to Juvenile detention, and the other two are sentenced to death.  None of the parties wanted to score political points on a tragedy.  In Sri Lanka, a party pride itself as the party of heritage (JHU) showed its ugly face once more.  It accused the demonstrators that their objective was to intimidate Sinhalese living in Jaffna. May be it should call itself the party for Sinhalese, not for all Sri Lankans.  The former President MR insinuated that extreme elements akin to LTTE were behind demonstrations.  He must have a poor memory of history.  Comparing the reasons for formation of LTTE to a gang-rape, shows how little he understood the reasons for the formation of LTTE, and the price paid by millions over three decades. Shame on him.  The NPC CM C Wigneswaran made the right call.  He appealed the masses to refrain from damaging public property, and demonstrate peacefully. I wish the politicians of 1970s and 1980s had his wisdom. Both, Tamil and Sinhala politicians fanned violence on innocent people then.  Further investigations reveal that pro-MR Tamil groups were behind the violence in Jaffna.  They still feel loyal to MR, and want to show the current Government in poor light.  A CID group in Jaffna is pursuing investigations. Finally, the President himself had gone to Jaffna, assuring Justice to victim's parents.

My Take:  Tragic events like these could be game-changers.  There had been gang-rapes in India & Sri Lanka before and after these incidents.  India has legislated in such a way that the criminals will be pursued and punished vigorously. In case of Sri Lanka, I have always felt that the main reason for the conflict in was the disrespect of ethnic groups for other ethnic groups.  Tamils by-and-large had no respect for the Sinhalese, and so were the Sinhalese towards Tamils.  If you do not respect the other group, it really does not matter whatever happens to them, isn't it.  This is what Hitler did to Jews, Israelis do to Palestinians, ISIS do to non-Muslims.  But a small group of people like Shamila Daluwatte are looking at these problems as crimes against women rather than an ethnic issue.  We need more people like Daluwatte & Friends.  We also need to eliminate politicians who use every tragedy for their gains. True reconciliation in Sri Lanka will come only when both groups appreciate and treat each other with dignity. Can this tragedy sow the seeds for true reconciliation?

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

No TV News for me tonight

I am an avid News watcher.  I could watch News for hours, from one channel to the other, when free. First time I watched TV was in Aug 1980, in a hotel in Washington.  I watched Ted Kennedy passionately argued why he should be the Presidential candidate for Democratic Party.  He did not persuade me.  Despite knowing very little about Jimmy Carter, I wanted him to win the nomination.  He did that only to lose to Ronald Regan big times in a few months.  The period between Aug and Nov of 1980 was the period when I became a News addict.  The addiction stayed with me until today, but this night, I do not want to watch or hear the News re the Bali 9, awaiting execution in a remote island of Indonesia.

As I write this, they probably have another 10 hours or so life left for them.  They will be executed for the crimes they committed about ten years ago, when they were 20 and 24.  Foolish boys they were, driven by greed and foolhardiness.  They were a part of drug smuggling network, only to get caught in Indonesia.  The Australian Federal Police tipped them off instead of arresting them here.  Reasons only known to them.  The crime took place about ten years ago when I lived overseas, that’s a lame excuse for my ignorance.

During the past few months, I have learnt a bit about them, they are two reformed ex-drug-smugglers.  One is a painter and the other is a Minister.  Not for long.  I learnt it through the efforts made by Australian Government to seek their reprieve from execution.  Hats off to Australians all shapes and colors, they were united in seeking the reprieve.  Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Spokespersons for all Political parties, retired Judges of Supreme Courts, Pastors, and Media persons.  The appeal was united and solemn.  A media person summed it, ‘We stand for mercy, because we are all imperfect’.  So are we, so are Sukumaran and Chan.

Death penalty is not uncommon around the world.    Many states in US still execute condemned prisoners.  In countries practicing Sharia, this is a weekly event.  For the evil cult of ISIS, it’s a daily ritual.  So, why does this imminent execution aches me so much?

I am sure there are many youngsters ruining their lives, because of drug dealers and pushers making this poison readily available at low cost.  But will executing these people solve the problem?  Can’t those arrested locked up in a cell, and made to repent right through their natural lives? Wouldn’t that be a better deterrent to other potential drug pushers, than being executing those caught?  Every pusher will learn from prisoned inmates that, the future is not rosy if they get caught.

I think so.  I truly abhor capital punishment, it’s a remnant of our medieval past.  Like many, I held hopes that Indonesians are strong and will become stronger by granting exemption to these two, because of the extent to which they have reformed.  I also felt that the Indonesians will accede the pleas made by the Pope and UN Secretary General.  

That’s not all.  Every time I saw Sukumaran’s family – the grandmother, mother, brother and sister, and Chan’s family – his brother, mother and girlfriend pleading for mercy, I squirmed inside.  Every new portrait Sukumaran released as time passed by, my heart wrenched.  There was one with a bullet hole on his chest without blood pouring, and then another, just a heart.  Isn’t forgiveness the ultimate punishment?

As the clock ticks, I am unable to watch TV.  I am alone in my flat, and feel absolutely helpless.  I am unable to entertain myself with a drink or a movie.  I just do not want to go near the TV.  Usually, when I watch news, I feel informed.  Not tonight.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Role of an International R&D Institute in Asia

Asia, is home for 67% of World’s poor and 63% of World’s hungry.  Labor available is old or unskilled, and agriculture in particular is subjected to Feminization.  For cultural and economic reasons, land fragmentation continues, so is the land leased or share-cropped, resulting in a decline of the resource base.  A range of basic needs such as the right to nutritive food, clean water for drinking, decent shelter, and access to basic health facilities are still at a distance to millions. 

Ironically, it is also the continent where rapid economic progress is underway.  There’s a vast number of intellectuals, researchers and scientists, who understand complex issues withholding equitable development in their respective countries, much better than a foreign expert.  Financial resources available to their research organizations far exceed resources that may be brought in by an International Research Institute. 

Under such circumstances, how can an International Institute add value to ongoing development processes?  In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to pen my thoughts.

  • Planning institutions must be the entry point.  Most Asian countries have Planning institutions, and have plans developed through painstaking process of consultations.  By understanding what the Government has already committed to, and by adding value to ongoing development activities, the impact of an international institute will be immediate. 
  • Identify demand for knowledge.  Development issues which have not progressed due to a lack of scientific understanding, and have constrained policy development are doorways for International Research Institutes. 
  • Engage in (or facilitate) a dialogue which may influence the country’s development program.  Identify key decision makers and understand social and political dividends they seek through development.
  • Be the window to the world.  By exposing potential solutions adapted successfully in other countries with similar issues, the International Institute could influence the thought processes, and avoid implementation of ‘failed’ programs/solutions.
  • Recognize advantages an International Research Institute have over National Institutes, such as (1) National institutes are bounded by various government protocols, which will not bind an International Research Institutes; (2) Often the National Institutes lack a relatively small resource, which could be catalytic to their productivity.  These catalysts are easily obtainable to international institutes; (3) Most of their researchers are subjected to the performance and rewards system, which tends to reward academic excellence, not, necessarily rewarding research that may lead development at home.
In my view, International R4D Institutes in Asia may be the Home for highly qualified environmental research expertise, which identify eco-friendly solutions to maintain resilient eco-systems, improve eco-system services and where possible restore degraded eco-systems.  International R4D Institutes in Asia should seek practical solutions for environmental challenges, which ensure sustainable access to natural resources.  In a nutshell, International R4D Institutes in Asia should become the first point of contact for information and knowledge to influence policy making bodies, such as the planning ministries.  It could become so, by being the convening center for Researchers all over the world.  They should seek to (1) Maintain a Balanced Portfolio of core skills in country offices within Asia, (2) facilitate research on strategic issues affecting client countries  (3) Disseminate to Impact, and (4) Build Regional Capacity to address future challenges by themselves.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Being hit at (on) the back

This blog is not about the day when I was caned across my back for talking to a fellow student in my high school library.  It happened in 1971, when I was in year eleven.  The library could not hold many students, so only year 11 and 12 students were allowed.  For my bad luck, I was talking to a fellow student when the Principal was on his rounds.  The lesson was permanent.  As a matter of fact, I do not go to libraries very often, but, even when I do, I respect the silence prevail.

What I am musing about is occasions when my car was hit by another driver at its back.  It has happened four times in my life, and interestingly, each driver’s response to the event is remarkably different.  By rules of traffic, the person hit from the back is always at fault, but in my heart I know, I may have inadvertently contributed to their neglect.

The first time was in Griffith, NSW, Australia, and the perpetrator was a local businessman, I have seen his photos on local newspapers.  He was driving his company Ute.  We both got out of respective cars, and he introduced himself and admitting his error.  He wanted to know who I was, and what do I do in Griffith.  It was (and still) a small Aussie country town, and in late 1980s, it hardly had any coloured person driving moderately expensive cars.  He assumed that I was a doctor; I told him that I was one, but can’t prescribe medicines.  We laughed, I told him that I worked for CSIRO, a reputed research organisation.  He asked me to bring my car to a particular garage at a particular time the following day, and he was there.  He told the mechanic to fix the dent, told me that everything will be alright, and then left.  The mechanic asked me to leave the car for a week.  When I returned after a week, all fixed, including the scratch which was there before the accident.  There were no reports to the Police, or to the insurance company, or whoever.  Gentlemen, all around!

The second time was in Muscat, Oman, when I was hit by a young Omani woman, travelling with her siblings.  They were distracting her, I think.  She did not speak English, and I could not speak Arabic.  I was scared, although I was not at fault.  I had been told that no matter what, in some Arabian Gulf countries, the expatriate is always at fault.  We were staring at each other, although I sensed an apology on the offender’s face.  Only thing I could do was to call an Omani friend and have him talk to her.  While I was busy explaining what happened to my friend, a Police car came to the spot and the Policeman said something in Arabic.  I sensed that the young woman was gaining confidence from what was said, and the tone of the Policeman to me was not courteous.  I gave my phone to the Policeman, and asked my friend to talk to him.  My friend told the Policeman that I am an Academic at the University, which helped a lot.  The Omanis have a lot of respect for teachers, especially the ones attached to my University.  The Policeman told both of us to follow him to the Police station, where a case was filed.  The young woman agreed to pay for the repairs and gave me her contact details.  I passed them and my damaged car to my Omani friend, who made sure that the car was fixed.  Al Hamdolillah (Thank God).

The third time was in Muscat too, but this time a very young driver, who could not speak in English, and even after a few years in Oman, I still could not speak Arabic.  He mixed Hindi (he must have assumed that I was from India), Arabic, and a few words in English and wanted to know how much money I wanted.  I was surprised at his offer, and said I do not know what it will cost to fix it.  Then he said that he will give me 100 Rials.  I recalled the last time it cost 75 Rials.  I said fine, but he did not have any money.  He asked me to follow him to an ATM, and withdrew money and gave me 95 Rials, and said that’s all he has in his account.  I said OK, and he left immediately.  I was surprised at his behavior, and later told an Omani colleague what happened.  My friend’s explanation was that the driver probably did not have a licence, and in Oman, this is a serious offence.  Had Police got involved, the driver would have gone to prison for sure.

The last time I was hit was about three weeks ago, at an intersection in Western Sydney.  When I got out, I saw a middle age woman, apologizing sincerely for her error, and we both agreed to move the car to a side.  When we both got out away from the intersection, the first thing she said was, ‘I have contacts at Police higher-ups’.  I started wondering why she would say so.  I lamented that mine was a new car, and I noticed her one was new too, and twice as expensive as mine.  I was calm, so was she.  We exchanged contact details, took a number of photographs of both, including each other’s licences. Fortunately, there wasn't any damage required fixing, so we haven’t contacted each other.  All is well.

I think my response in all occasions were the same.  An expression of anguish on my face stating my displeasure of the follow up, I will have to go through.  Fortunately, they were all mild accidents, I wasn’t hurt physically.  But I think all four perpetrators behaved differently.  The businessmen would have had an account at the garage to repair his company vehicles.  My repair would have been treated as damage to one of his own in the books. And at the end, even if there was a loss to him, it wouldn't have mattered to him at all.  So, was in the case of the Aussie woman, who had a comprehensive insurance, and certainly she was not poor.  Again, if there was any need of a repair, her premium would have gone up, and it would not have changed anything in her way of life.  The Omani woman would have preferred not paying anything, and if my friend did not get involved, I am sure that would have been the case.  I may have received a warning from the Police too.  Under these circumstances, ignorance is not bliss.  The younger Omani saved himself from deeper troubles by spending 95 Rials.  He was keen to disappear!

But, I still can’t figure out why did the Aussie woman say that she has contacts at Police higher-ups?  Obviously, she was not trying to shirk her obligations.  I wonder whether she was afraid that I would abuse her.  Was it because she is an Anglo-Saxon middle-age woman, and I am an overweight angry ‘black’ man?  I am not sure.  Are these the subtle shades of ‘racism’ in multi-racial societies, I wonder.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

I am proud to be a

Recently, I attended a workshop as a part of the ‘Aboriginal Water Initiative’ of NSW Office of Water, where I work.  The program, ‘Aboriginal Water Initiative’, is to ensure water used by Aborigines for their cultural services are taken into consideration and provided for when water is allocated and managed in river basins.  This is one of the four categories of ecosystem services provided by water, others being provisioning, supportive, and regulatory.   I had been in the water sector for a long time, and I believe this ‘initiative’ is one of a kind, and again, Australians are showing the way forward.
The prime objective of the workshop was to sensitize non aboriginal Australians to sensitivities of Aborigines in Australia.  There were 24 participants, none of them were Aborigines.  The instructor had Aboriginal mother and Italian father.  This gave him the liberty to use a wide ranging vocabulary, some are politically incorrect.  Those words did drive his messages though.

His first exercise was to remind everyone that occupation of Australia by non-Aborigines is only for the last 227 years, Aborigines inhabited this vast continent for more than 40,000 years, and the continent itself is very much older than the people who live(d) in it.  Well, everyone knew this, but the reminder set the scene.

Then he asked the group to split into two, those who were born in Australia and those who immigrated.  The split was 50:50.   Those who immigrated were separated on the basis of their country of origin, and those born in Australia were separated on the basis of their parents’ country of birth.  By this time, there were almost 24 groups, each with one member.  The point was made again, we are all different, yet we are all the same.  We differ, if we choose to, we conform when we choose to.  He maintained, although we differed, we are all unique and should be very proud of our ancestry.  No one could disagree.

Then what’s the problem?  The problem is when one group thinks their ancestry is some or other better than the others’ ancestry.  I see this as the root cause of conflicts.  In Sri Lanka some Sinhala-Buddhists consider their ancestry is some or other better than Tamil-Hindus or Tamil-Muslims.  In the Arabian Gulf, ISIS considers it superior to everyone else.  I can go on.

What we do not remember is that most of us did not choose our mother tongue, nationality or religion.  We were born into whatever we are.  Every one’s ancestry has lessons for others to better themselves.  Our focus, especially in societies like in Australia, should be to cherish the opportunity and learn the best from each other.

There’s also confusion between Nationalism and Patriotism among some.  I can be a proud Jaffna-Tamil, and a patriotic Australian, can’t I?  Patriotism will be challenged only when I expect every Australian to be like Jaffna Tamil.  After all, Tamil is only 5000 years old,and Hinduism is only 12000 years old.  In comparison with the period Aborigines have inhabited Australia, I haven't got much to brag about, isn't it!

So, let’s be proud about our ancestry, let’s not insist ours is better than that of others’, and definitely not insist on everyone to become like us.