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.  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.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Reflections from Cemeteries

During the past two weeks, I was at two Cemeteries, one in Colombo, Sri Lanka and the other in Sydney, Australia.  I probably spent about 90 minutes at each one, mostly observing and reflecting.

In Colombo, I was at the square where Hindu cremations take place.  Deceased are brought in, rituals carried out, the pyre is set on fire, and then everyone leave.  My mind kept humming a Kannathasan's song - Veedu varai uravu, Veethi varai Manaivi, Kadu varai pillai, Kadasi varai yaro (Kith & Kin come home, wife to street, the sons to the cemetery, BUT, who will come till last).

The last time I was there was 18 years ago, cremating my mother.  This time the circumstances were different.  I was to attend a funeral, but I got there well after it was over, and waited for 90 minutes not knowing that the funeral was over.  There weren't anyone, and I assumed that all will come with the deceased.  But the truth was, no sooner the grieved left, the area for the funeral pyre had been cleaned, and prepared for the next cremation.  All looked clean and proper.  This business has no dearth of customers.

But the waiting period gave me time to walk-about, watch and reflect.

At another part of the cemetery - I believe that was for the Buddhists - a baby's funeral was on.  The coffin could not be more than 75 cm long.  The family were squatting on the floor, grieving, and a monk was condoling citing religion, and God, I think.  Quite an emotional setting, the monk was speaking very softly, yet it came out loud and clear, because of the silence prevailed.  I wished I could understand Sinhalese better.  I would have benefited from his service.

I kept walking, and witnessed a burial of an elderly man, a Christian by birth.  He was a Tamil, and the rites before burial were from those of Hindus.  The burial pit was ready.  The coffin was set on the ground.  Then a close relative carried a mud-pot of water around the coffin three times, another man followed him, and after each round, the man behind pricked a hole on the pot, allowing water to leak.  This rite for a Hindu symbolizes the release of the soul.

Then close relatives were putting pounded rice on the mouth of the deceased.  By putting broken rice (which can't germinate) on the mouth of the deceased, it is believed that the soul will not be born again.  Hindus believe in re-incarnation of those sinned, but this rite is a remedy for all sins committed, I suppose.

It's clear that Christians, who lived among Hindus have adapted some Hindu rituals over the years.  My trespass ended when the coffin was about to be lowered.

I continued my prowl, and my mind engaged in a weird exercise.  I started estimating the age of those buried, and it ranged from teens to sixties, only a few above seventies, and hardly any above eighties.  I told myself - my time is running out.  I am already sixty.

I also walked through a part where almost everyone buried was a military personnel.  This part of the cemetery is a reminder of the price many families paid for the Civil War, we need not have had.  Among them was the tombstone of Mr Ranjan Wijeyratne, former Defense Minister of Sri Lanka.

Despite the flow of depressing thoughts, one sight was refreshing.  I saw two women, one possibly in her fifties, and another probably in her twenties, must be mother and daughter.  Both looked like those settled in the West, but on a holiday in Colombo.  They were desperately looking for a tomb.  The memory of their elder has brought them from where ever they were to the Cemetery after a long time.  In their minds, the deceased still lives.

Overall the cemetery was maintained well, gardeners busy weeding and raking.  Flowers all around too.  The Cemetery was maintained by a successful company owned by a Muslim businessman.

The second funeral was in Sydney.  I was at the cemetery, about ten minutes earlier, and several mourners were coming out of a chapel.  Among them at least one-hundred bikies, in their leather strapping.  Bikes roared, as sign of salute.  They are coming out of another bikie's funeral, I guessed.

The funeral I went to attend was that of an elderly lady, who had two sons and a daughter.  All three were at least 50 years old.  Her funeral was held in a Chapel, and two Hindu community elders carried out her last rites.  A Hindu's funeral in a Christian Chapel!  The rites had to be modified to suit the Chapel, and the time allocated.  Her sons were in peace, that the mother lived 91 years and died peacefully.  The daughter kept crying, so were the grand daughters.  Those in attendance were multi-racial and multi-religious.  All mourned.  Having lived in Sydney for 28 years, the lady had made a lot of friends, I could see.  At the end of the ceremony the coffin was handed over to the undertakers, and the curtains were drawn.  The coffin will then 'roll' gently into an incinerator, and the ashes to be collected later.  No funeral pyre, and the works!  

What I witnessed was a merger.  Baby and a Bikie.  Christian funeral with Hindu rituals, and a Hindu funeral at a Chapel.  A cemetery for Hindus, Christians and Buddhists maintained by Muslims.

Cemeteries coalesce!  They equalize.  A Tamil poet called them "samarasam ulaavum idame", a place where all are equal.  A perfect metaphor.

P.S. For those who understand Tamil, see this clip on YouTube.


Friday, 24 October 2014

Globalisation of Norocholai

Norocholai is the tip of Kalpity peninsula in Puttalam District.  I was at the beach strip, possibly 3-4 km long, and was amazed at the extent of globalisation of this rather pristine and quiet strip.

I could see a coal power plant belching smoke through its three chimneys.  This plant was built with Chinese aid, coal to the plant is supplied by a bulk freighter (bulker) possibly sailed its way from Australia.  It is so big, it can’t sail closer to the power plant.  So, a handy, a smaller vessel, shuttles between the bulker and the plant continuously.  900 MW of electricity is expected from the plant, feeding the national grid.  This increased supply is expected to bring down the electricity prices, especially for small consumers across the country.  A few kilo meters from the plant is a labour camp (actually this is a modern residential complex with dozens of 100 duplexes), built for Chinese technocrats for their stay during construction.  Now it houses employees of the coal power plant.

Evenly spaced wind mills had been installed along the beach strip.  They are probably 200 m apart, just enough space to prevent the long wind blades colliding from each other.  There were several of them, constructed by a Sri Lankan company with support from Indian companies.  I was told a temporary jetty was built so that the spares for the wind mills can be brought directly from India to this remote part of Sri Lanka.  The mills rotate all day and night long producing electricity for the National grid.  I am not sure how cost effective they are but, at least for now, almost all of them are in working order.

Now to the traditional economic sector – fishing.  The fishermen come all the way from Batticaloa.  They are hired by the local businessmen for a four month period, with an advance of two month wages.  They fish the old-fashioned way, the lay the nets about 2 km long in a loop, a man on a dingy at the tip of the loop signals the ‘pullers’ at both end of the loop.  They move in tandem, as they pull the net towards the land.  Laying the net, and pulling it back to the shore takes more than four hours, but it brings a few tons of fish – their skins just shine like silver sheets.  By the way, nets from Japan and Korea are sown together to trap the fish.  That’s the local innovation.  As the fish is pulled to the shore, a small ice truck awaits the harvest; fishermen sort the fish and pack them in boxes of ice.  The truck then rolls its way to the markets in Colombo, which is about 125 km away.  A portion of the harvest is also brought to huts along the beach, where it is processed, mixed with salt, and dried for dried-fish.

As you move your eyes from the shore towards in-land, tall coconut trees wave their long leaves in merriment. As we the Sri Lankans know, every part of the palm has an economic value, and the locals take full advantage of them.  Once you get through the coconut groves, there are sand dunes intensively cultivated.  Almost any vegetable is grown, throughout the year.  Soils have no structure, so, the fields are irrigated twice a day.  Irrigation water is from the groundwater, which is about 10 m deep.  Watering them with a drag hose is labour intensive and expensive, so, the farmers have designed their own sprinklers for irrigation.  The vegetables are sprayed and fertilised very much in excess, frequent irrigation leach them down, so the groundwater is not suitable for drinking.  The locals are well aware of it, they buy drinking water from a distance.  Labour for agriculture is provided by migrants from Mannar.  A woman makes about 7 dollars, and a man makes about 8 dollars in a six hour shift.  Usually they start very early, work till 11 AM, go home and then they go to a different farmer in the afternoon.  Two shifts are very common, so, 12 to 15 dollars a day is easily made by these labourers.  Again the harvest is trucked immediately to markets – there’s no local storage for the produce.

I met a farmer/fisherman who ‘owns’ fishing and farming operations on this strip.  He was very impressive. He is sixty five, spoke all three languages, recited a few ‘Kurals’ as we conversed.  He has done Year 12 at St Patricks College in Jaffna, and was appointed as an English teacher for a salary of 300 Rs.  He decided to do farming and fishing, and was proud that he now supports 50 to 60 families.  His son is a graduate, who looks after the day to day operations, daughter a MSc graduate, teaches at a local high school.  He hosts University students occasionally and speaks to them about agriculture in the field.  He was proud that he does not get any assistance from the Government.  The Government Agent of Puttalam confirmed this.   Based on the numbers cited, a person who owns one acre land will make 1000 USD profit per month from agriculture.  That is not a small sum anywhere.

Another traditional industry is salt mining from sea water - presence of salterns are not easy to miss.

The peninsula is also home for several hotels for tourists.  I saw the hotels, not the tourists – possibly basking in the mild but bright sun somewhere.

This the strip of land supports a coal power plant, wind mills, hotels, fisheries and agriculture.  I could feel the ‘presence’ of technology or investment made by Australians, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Indians.  Even among Sri Lankans, there were laborers from Batticaloa and Mannar supporting investment of Puttalam business men.

I can’t think of any other places I have been to, where globalisation of local economy was so evident!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

A note on a Hindu Custom

Despite being a Hindu by birth, my knowledge of Hinduism is very minimal.  All what I know is from my religious education up to Year 8 – learning stories miracles performed by God or Gods’ men, and memorizing Thevarams in Tamil (poems praising God, and requesting blessings), and then watching what my parents and grandparents did.  Most Hindu rituals are conducted by Priests in Sanskrit, a language I did not learn.  They did traditional rituals, with or without understanding the motives for the rituals.  I am the same, except, last weekend, when we offered ‘thanks’ (Thivasam in Tamil) to my deceased mother on her death anniversary. 

The priest is a young man, an officer at one of the leading banks in Australia.  He noticed my daughters, nephews and nieces, all in their teens, and decided to explain the rituals, as he went through them.  Not only the teens, I too benefited from his prudence.

First, the priest wanted a list of names and Nakshatras (stars at birth) of all family members before the ceremony started.  We are six children to my parents, all married, and from us there are thirteen grand children to my parents.  So, the list had twenty-five names and corresponding Nakshatras.  He also informed that that the ceremony involve six Poojas (steps, rituals, etc.). 

Pooja 1:  The priest read all names with Nakshatras on the list, and invited the souls to be present and accept our offerings.  He said that by reading all names on the list, the Souls will be able to identify us and come to the occasion. 

Pooja 2:  Lord Ganesha, the first child of Shiva and Parvati is said to have strengths of both of His parents.  Lord Ganesha was invited to witness and bless.  This is a standard ritual at all Hindu ceremony.

Pooja 3:  Earth, Fire (energy), Sky, Water, and Wind, the indestructible elements were invited ones to witness and bless.  Interestingly, the Energy goddess (Gowri) is considered as the prime element of all.

Pooja 4:  An offering was made to three generations of deceased.  My parents, paternal grand-parents and paternal great-grand parents.  Each ‘parent’ was symbolized by a ‘ball of dough’ made with rice flour.  Other ingredients were ghee (purified butter), honey, and milk.  In addition, a larger ‘ball of dough’ was made to represent all others deceased.  For each ball, a bread (rotti), a savory (Vadai), and a sweet (Paayasam – Kheer), were offered.  All these offerings are assumed to be accepted by a Bull (Rishabam – Lord Shiva’s mode of transport).  I recall that the offerings are offered to cows or bulls in my home town, Jaffna.  In the absence of a bull or a cow, they are ‘disposed’ in a stream.  In our case, the priest accepted the responsibility to dispose them.

Pooja 5:    Hand-washing – all attended were required to wash hands with sesame seeds and water.  Sesame seed is said to have purifying/cleansing effect.  The priest was conscious that all seeds were washed away.

Pooja 6:  Food is served and the souls were invited consume the ‘flavors’, and bless. 

Then we thanked the priest and gave him some grocery, fruits, vegetables, a sari and some money.  He accepted them on my parents’ behalf and said that he was ‘satisfied’, on behalf of my parents, of course.  The Ceremony took about 90 minutes.  The combination of thoughts of my mother and understanding what was going on, were very refreshing to me.  

Friday, 29 August 2014

If it’s there it is, if not, No!

Often, I take part in debates on the existence of God, Heaven and Hell.  It also extends to spirituality, group-singing (Bhajans), benefits of fasting or meditation etc.  Often these discussions ends up ridiculing one's beliefs, or imposing one's belies on another, I have observed.

Does God exist?  Are there any benefits in discussing my remaining years in spirituality etc.?  And more importantly, should I engage in this debate any more to advance my knowledge, I wonder?

Knowledge seeking is defined as an inquiry into nature of things based on logical reasoning.  A school of thought suggest that it is through falsifying a ‘statement’ or theory, knowledge is derived.  Statements can be classified into (a) untrue and falsifiable, (b) true but falsifiable and (c) not falsifiable.

Examples of ‘untrue and falsifiable’ statements are (1) It never rains on Wednesdays; or (2) All substances expand when heated.  Both these statements are untrue and easily falsifiable.  It has rained on Wednesdays and it will probably rain on Wednesdays in future, and ice, while melting reduces in volume.  A ‘true but falsifiable’ statements is “Heavy objects when released from a height will fall straight downwards”.  This is largely true, except when the object was released in space where gravitational pull does not exist.  A statement that is ‘not falsifiable’ is “It may or may not rain”.  Statements, which are untrue and falsifiable and not falsifiable, do not tell us anything.  Therefore they do not form a part of scientific knowledge.  Only those statements, laws or theories, which are true but falsifiable, can improve our knowledge.

To me, the existence of God is “not falsifiable”, i.e., "'God may or may not exist", and therefore the debate on this topic can hardly advance my knowledge.  So, I will avoid this debate in future.

I will settle for what my parents, grandparents and teachers taught me.  I will also take comfort from a famous Tamil poet, Kannadasan, who said, if it’s there it is, if not, No!

Yes, there’s God, I believe, and I am not getting into this debate hereafter!