Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Turning Sixty

The dreaded 60 has come and gone.  Why has this number bothered me all my life?  How do I feel now?

I sense a feeling of relief and increased financial security.  Relief that I need not engage in a rat race called career, trying to convince someone that I have something useful to offer, and therefore they should keep me in my job.  It turned out that I have often exceeded their expectations, and therefore promoted within the organisations I served.  The sense of financial security comes from the fact that I have met most of the expenses without accumulating debts, and I am now entitled to a pension.  I could call on it when I need it.  Furthermore, I do not have a long time to liveJ.

The past sixty years were not necessarily a bed of roses.  I had my ups and down.  Overall, however, I have had good education, good family, good friends and good jobs.  I was able to travel and witness some of the best and worst during my career.  Many had been supportive of me during this journey, but two stand out.  One was my mother who prayed for me ceaselessly, and the second is my wife, who supported me unreservedly.

As a kid, I always thought, sixty is when one gets old.  I have read about Shashtiabdapoorthi, a Hindu tradition of celebrating 60th birthday.  As per the Hindu culture, the age sixty is of great significance because it is considered as a turning point in a man's life.  At this age one has usually fulfilled his commitments to family and home and so he can turn his mind to spirituality.  In my case, my family commitments aren’t fulfilled, so I am not entitled for Shashtiabdapoorthi.

For many years, I wanted to retire at 55, although my grandfather drove his lorry till he turned 65.  I wasn’t planning to idle at home, but thought I should become a writer, write stories for children.  I am not sure how good I would have been as a children story writer, but, I am sure I would not have made enough money for the needs of my family. 

Until very recently, just recent as three years ago, I was mentally prepared for retirement at 60.  But, it changed, and my desire to continuously be employed as long as I could be, is reinforced after my resettlement in Australia a few months ago.  Reading and following the debate about the expenses associated with aged care in Australia, and the propensity for us to live longer, I am now mindful about being healthy, and wanting to be employed longer. 

But, there’s another reason, a stronger one wanting me to be active longer – my daughters.  Both remind me that I am sixty (not sixteen as I claim when they are around).  I hold their hands when they need me, and their successes – small and big, and their mischiefs brighten my life.  These girls are full of joy, thank God.  My kids will be schooling for another ten years, and schooling is expensive everywhere these days! 

Anyone who looked at my palm or my horoscope has said that I will have a long life, but, none said a number higher than 84.  Most stopped at 80, a few also mentioned 82.  I think I will be happy with 80, but I may change my mind and may want to live longer.  This is of course, if I stay healthy till 80. I hope I do, I want to get a few things done, witness a few more, and enjoy everything else this world has to offer.  It’s a wonderful world.

So, the next number I am looking for is 70, to retire, and then will look forward to 80.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Not at the right place and not at the right time

Well, Johnny Manziel didn’t make the top ten. Or even the top twenty. In what was probably the biggest coup for ESPN ’s ratings of the 2014 NFL Draft, the audience waited for the undersized, dynamic Texas A&M quarterback to drop all the way to No. 22.  He completed almost 70% of the passes, and won Heisman Trophy - the only college quarter back to win this.

So, what went wrong?  Despite being the top College Football quarterback from Texas A&M, the first team to draft did not need a quarterback or a back-up quarterback.  The rest of the teams assumed that Johnny will be picked up by the first team, they came with their own draft picks and stuck to their plans.  So, when the first team did not pick him, no one else wanted him, even as a back-up quarterback.  Their needs were different.  Poor Johnny was not.  He lost several millions in signing up fees.

This is life.  You can be the best in what you do, but, if you are not at the right place at the right time, you can't be successful.  I think Gandhi would have been a failure if he is around now in India.  See what's happening to Anna Hazare?

What is this got  to do with me?  First, a farewell speaker compared me to Johnny Football only a month ago.  May be because he played for Texas A&M, where I did my studies in the eighties.  Or, may be I was as good as Johnny in what I was doing - wistful thinking, may be.

Recently I met an Californian, with whom I spent three weeks in early 1990's as a visiting scientist.  We met again after 20 years in Dec 2013, and he complimented that I have had an illustrious career.  My response was, 'I was at the right place at the right time'.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

When a person leaves, he leaves his name behind

Recently, I left the job I loved the most, but, with a lot of satisfaction.  Here's why...

“Over the years, Prathapar has made a tremendous contribution to IWMI not only through his research, but also in guiding our programmatic direction. His departure will be a great loss to IWMI and we will be sad to see him go”. 

“Your enthusiasm and passion in developing this portfolio from virtually nothing to a program of work that has considerable potential to address some of the most intractable challenges in the sector is a credit to your dedication to the task at hand. You should be justly proud of your achievements”.

" As a friend, leader and mentor, you will be dearly missed here."

"Really felt bad when I got this mail. We will miss you at IWMI.  We cherished your company within and outside office with great pride.  As an irrigation engineer, I have always seen you as  my role model."

"With a short stint of working with you and in person meet thrice, I thank god for giving opportunity to meet you in person."

"But not only that, you are so encouraging, and helpful to us young researchers. You are seriously one of the coolest person I know and you  will be dearly missed. I hope I will get many more chances in life to meet you."

"This is a shocker. I feel really sad, and hate to hear that. You had so many good ideas, why leave IWMI this suddenly."

"Great loss as a personal friend and an excellent professional at IWMI".

"It is shocking to me that you will be leaving".

“All the best to a kind hearted Management Team member with your future endeavours”.

“But of course I can understand that you would like to be closer to your family. It will be a loss for IWMI!”

“Even though we haven’t worked before, I have seen you walking by on many occasions since I work next to CP office. I want to wish you best of luck and all the best to your new journey. I hope you will do best and we will hear from you time to time.  Keep smiling always!”

“I am proud to know you as a colleague and consider you as a teacher. Even though we worked in different themes I still appreciate your visionary guidance. Every time you visit Tashkent its inspirational to talk with you. Also, we know that all small/big projects we have now in Tashkent is the result/impact of your initial/foundational work with SDC to set up IWRM-Ferghana Valley project and actually, our office”.

“I have valued your immense practical knowledge”.

I really enjoyed working with you on the AgWater project and in particular preparing the proposal for the work in Nigeria.   I learned a lot by working with you and so much appreciated your calm and thoughtful approach”.

“It has been a pleasure working with you and I really appreciate all the support you have given us in getting the ACIAR project off the ground”. 

“It was a great honour and pleasure to meet with you and have your kind guidance and blessings for the research work.  We also deeply appreciate your kind hospitality and look forward to our interactions in the future”.

“Thank you very much for your kind cooperation and support. I am missing you. You are a very good teacher and role model for me.  I have learned lot from you. I always like your friendly approach”.

“Thanks for all the good times of discussions and interactions together.  We will surely miss you but I am glad you plan to keep in touch. Let’s do that”.

“Thanks for all your support, in your amazing ability to trigger action amidst of such complexities”

“We miss good people.   This is the life.  Wish you all the best”.

“We never really worked together but it was good to know you”.

“You have left an excellent professional history in IWMI”.

“You really helped build up the Nepal office and I really appreciate you for that”

“Your presence was really valuable at IWMI and made a great difference”.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

So, what's new?

One of the challenging questions posed to me as a Research Leader at IWMI was, ’What’s new’? 

This line of query did not mean that everything that was researched was some or other new – we continued research in topics like rainwater harvesting, organic manuring, and development of business plans.  I have studied them and developed business plans for my BS degree in Agriculture, some 40 years ago. 

Being privileged to work in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, soon I learnt that everything is new for sub Saharan Africa, and the donors were happy to put money in, as long as there’s an element of capacity building and women empowerment.  Donors are/were not interested in research, but on development of human capital through which socio-economic development may occur.  I do not have anything against this, it is the right thing to do, and I welcome this.  Asian countries on the other hand have well developed human capital; China, India and South East of Asia do not need external help.  As a matter of fact, they do not even need money for research these days.  So, donors keep away, or being asked to keep away.

The above does not answer the question, ’What’s new?’, and the answer lies in text books for ‘Philosophy of Science’.  In most cases, and most researchers, we do induction/deduction research.  The probabilistic definition of inductive research goes as,’ If a large number of As have been observed under a wide variety of conditions, and if all these observed As without an exception possessed property B, then all As probably possess the property B.  \Greater the number of observations, then greater the probability that resulting generalizations are true. 

So, scientific knowledge arrived through induction and deduction is not true, but probably true.

As inductivists, we repeat what we already know, fine tune them by applying a new methodology or a tool or pose the question differently, and when we have to publish, we often bring supporting testaments from researchers who had reported similar findings.  Through this type of research, we improve pretty much what we know. 

This is a good thing, and why should not we do such things?

A recent example could be smart-mobile phones.  Mobile phone was invented in 1971, the battery weighed 2 kgs and lasted 10 minutes of conversation!  Now mobile phones are smarter and snugly fits in our pockets, battery last for 48 hours, they have a camera, radio, and voice recorder and the works, which all existed before mobile phone was invented.  Can anyone say, that research in mobile phones should stop because there can’t be anything new?

In early days of IIMI, we showed through inductive research, and by gathering large body of data, that there’s inequity in water distribution in canal commands, which influenced many irrigation infrastructure modernization programs.

This does not mean that we should not search for something new.  There was Martin Cooper at Motorola who wanted mobile phones instead of land lines, so, when the phone rang, we did not have to ‘run’ to the phone tethered to a wall.  It is already with us.  This was a ‘paradigm shift’, a phrase loosely used by many of us.  We need such paradigm shifts to make quantum leaps in the way we live.

When I look back, this took place when IWMI, amongst others wanted to manage water as a basin resource.  Yes, we knew the hydrologic cycle, we knew water is recycled again and again, but within the context of water for agriculture, and perceived efficiencies in irrigation applications, there was a paradigm shift.  Investors in irrigation infrastructure maintenance were guided by this new paradigm.  Lining of canals in fresh groundwater areas were discouraged.

I argue, we need these paradigm shifts, and I argue,that we keep encouraging  inductivism as well.

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.