Expressway…speed… biking …symphony

A road through an Indian village where we can not do an average more than 50kmph

I was on the Mumbai-Pune expressway last week. Its not permitted for 2 wheelers to ride on this road. But sitting on the seat beside the bus driver and with the whole windscreen to myself is a delight, and I cant have enough of it. I wish I could ride on this road on my motorbike.

Speeds of 90kmph or more on a motorbike on well paved roads gives an adrenaline rush, only a biker can understand. With all the four wheelers crossing you at 120kmph or more, it makes me feel vulnerable, highly alert  to everything happening around me- left right, front, behind , below , across the road, on the bylanes 100meters ahead and 100 meter behind. With helmet, jacket and gloves on the vulnerability is partly shielded, none the less its hardly near complete safe. The wind that slaps you from the front and from the right when a mammoth of a truck passes you is the music that I ride the bike to.  Its been more than six moths since I rode long distance. But the very thought of being on the road, make my eyes go wider, and every cell of my body gets excited about it.  Indian roads do not give enough opportunity to do such speeds for long distances. One highway where in certain stretches this experience is possible is NH4.

The experience is about speed, but a lot more about the realisation of how vulnerable and transient is life. This realisation stays on for sometime after a ride and it changes the ways one goes about life. It translates into  gentler mannerisms, care for things and people and humbler attitudes.

These speeds are dangerous, until one does enough distances on lesser speeds, one should not attempt these speeds; especially not on Indian roads. I would not suggest even a adept biker to do something like this. I only do this on very short streches that are  scantily populated and less trafficked.

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♫ The power of Music ♫

I go through my share of high, upbeat and beautiful  days and smaller but a felt share of  down, deep in dungeon states too.

In the dungeon days, earlier I sought for external support, from friends and other near ones. As time passes, a self healing process seems to be lot better an approach. There is very little effort one has to put to make self understand about their own turmoils. 🙂 .  Of course this process of reconciliation and healing of self is not completely by myself. There is a big aid in this process, music.  I either sing by myself or listen to music compositions that come to my mind or something I happen to listen during the troubled times. This is not a very unique process, most of people I know do it unconsciously. Until few months ago, even I would have to remind myself – “listen to something” and that was enough to see me through the blue days and come out of it all happy and optimistic about everything life. But it was not a very conscious process. Now the attempt is more conscious.

This post is not to praise myself of this ability to get out of lows with the help of music, but to share about a beautiful school that takes this approach to reach out to children from troubled backgrounds. This was a movement initiated by José Antonio Abreu. He talks about this initiative at TED in 2009.

The school that he started in Mexico is called The El Sistema. There is another school by the same folks now in  United States of America as well . I smile with pride and joy when I see these children from El Sistema perform.

I indulge in arts ( paint, sketch), music and yet I never realised that these so called “softer forms” of practice have a powerful bearing on the work done to people and situations that needs the most attention and care.  Art and music is much needed in places where there is and was trouble. It is not something only the elite need to indulge in. It is more needed  and  is quite a powerful instrument to address the problems of the world. As most problems of the world are problems of living beings who have hearts and minds.

Of course we need  – houses, water, food and all the necessities to meet basic needs. But it really matters to the world that each and every individual in this world  is happy within themselves. That makes them capable of facing their challenges and struggles of life gracefully without causing pain to themselves or others.

Leisure to field notes to ethanography

A roadside samosa stall in South India

The days when I am not on the road, I am in Mumbai. Its been 10 months of making Mumbai my base. I live in a locality which is composed of a mixture of both low and high income housing. Its raining incessantly in the city. The Methi dam has enough to supply the city for the year to come in a month’s rain. So you know how much rain has happened here. I hardly step out into the city, except for the clear evenings when I take a stroll or sit by the sea front. When I don’t  step out I take a peek from  my terrace briefly i.e if it stops raining , otherwise the house’s window is my window to the world.

From my terrace today, I saw some households laying tarpaulin sheets on their roofs to stop the rainwater from leaking into their houses. And this also reminded me of  the number of people who walk in their rain shoes to work, who commute in the local trains/buses, the hawkers trying to sell their produce under a camping umbrella and many others.  I have always wondered what must “life of the hawkers” be like.

I have too many questions like this that come to my mind as I travel:when I see a young 12 year old child knocking my hotel room to clear up the tea cups, when I see a young boy ( may be 15) from Pudukotai district briskly serving a cup of coffee from morning to evening in a restaurant in Bangalore or a watchman from Kuppam standing daylong in front of a building wishing you every time you cross him with a question ” have you eaten child? “.  But I also felt that if I approach this quest of mine without much purpose,  I would not come out with anything insightful or of any value to myself or the lives of the people whom I am curious about. I have been hesitant to brazenly walk into their lives and ask delicate questions about it. I have not had the confidence that I could do it without hurting or overstepping into their space.

Few weeks ago, I finally took a step towards working on “How I would enquire into lives of people that I am interested in purposefully with sensitivity?”. I did it not by myself, I owe it to a friend who gifted me a book on  ethnography, Ethanography- Step by Step by  David M Fetterman. It takes me quite a bit of effort to pick up a book read it from start to end. But I was able to read this book effortlessly.  I have been doing few things that this book suggests intuitively during my field visits. But there were many things that were new to me, especially the organisation of notes, terminology and methods used to conduct ethnographic studies.

Its intriguing how one thought triggers another and another and another and a random post happens. But writing this post has helped me summarise some lessons from my reading the book.

Economics – Why is it so important in today’s times?

I had hardly given any conscious attention to economics until I began to engage with  issues regarding environment, poverty and education. Its been few years at our consulting practice  that has given us to contribute in different capacities with organisations (mostly non-profit) working in these areas.  Through these engagement one thing that came out quite clearly was, it is necessary to understand the economics behind any of these issues to be able to solve them.  This is because of the scarcity of the resources that is required to solve a problems or  the resource itself is the reason of a problem. Another reason why I am interested in getting to know this science better is , I observe in our times people understand the language of money far easier than any other language and economics ( to this beginner) will help learn that language. It has become difficult to use morals or ethics to reason out why a particular decision is better than another. Money has become the primary yardstick in decision making for majority of individuals, organisations and even the state. When monitory evaluation and economic value of goods or products is what matters then it becomes important to learn the language of money.  That is when I started to pick up basic books on economics, looking at the subject like an exotic object from another planet.

What is economics in simple words?

One of the popular definitions is: The science of how people make choices for the allocation of scarce resources to satisfy their unlimited desires.

If this is the definition of economics all of us are practicing economics in our day to day transactions. Isn’t it? All of us are economist in our lives.

Economics can be a lens used by all experts in their own field. Why do we need  an expert who is an economist? This may sound like a ridiculous question. I ask this question because, many decisions made for a country ( regarding everything- education, environment, food, water, trade etc) especially depend on the opinions of influential economists of the country. The buck always stops here.

For instance, how can we expect an economist to know the value of services provided by a forest especially when we have very little knowledge of the services provided by the forest. If you do not know what are the resources and the services provided by them in totality, how do we expect to quantify them completely?

It is quite unsettling to know that a very few people ( influential economist ) who know little of the subjects/problems/ issues  they evaluate but a lot about economics are making decisions for nations. As Friedrich Hayek during his nobel speech in 18974 said ( excerpts from here)

The Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess… This does not matter in the natural sciences. Here the influence exercised by an individual is chiefly an influence on his fellow experts; and they will soon cut him down to size if he exceeds his competence. But the influence of the economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.

Another economist who comes to my mind is Bjorn Lomborg, who is known for putting together the Copenhagen Consensus. Where for the first time a list of most important crises of the world were listed and prioritised. Who did it all? Again world’s leading economist. Why economist, because they can really compare how much of work can a billion dollar do in malaria alleviation in what period of time  vs what that same money can do in addressing climate change in what period of time.  In his TED talk Bjorn Lomborg makes a very convincing case for the same. He also acknowledges this is not the best way, and therefore they brought in 80 young people from across the world and got them to come up with their list. And that the list made by the youth was quite similar to the one put together by the world’s best economist.

Economic theories and methods are usually based on observation of state economies and their course of journey that has taken place in the past. It is done in retrospect. It is theoratization of the past. And these theories are projected for the future with many assumptions which could change dynamically. ( paraphrasing a thought from A talk by Prof J Mohan Rao at Azim Premji University)

I am a person who always wants to quantify, measure and see tangible effects of any of the work I do. And economics is a tool that serves my purpose best. But using it as legitimiser of decisions,  in my opinion is taking it a little too far from what the field is capable of.

This is my opinion based on my engagement with the subject in my early days. My opinions may change with gathering of wider and deeper knowledge of this science. But one thing I am sure of is that I will not want to lose perspective of real problems and their contexts in my attempt to make them quantifiable. 

‘Paving the road to hell with agricultural productivity’ -Part II

A farmer family going back home after a days work. Yadgir district, Karnataka

In the post ‘Paving the road to hell with agricultural productivity’, my colleague Sachin wrote about the new policy study we both have got onto. Our observation as Sachin states is:

Focus on increasing agriculture productivity as an intervention in alleviating poverty across the less developed and developing countries, particularly of Africa and Asia has had reverse effect of pushing people further down into economic crisis.We begin a small study this week where we explore the consequences of large agriculture programs which are focused on increasing agricultural productivity of farm sector, for a variety of staple crops, cash crops as well as horticultural crops. The increase in productivity is treated as end in itself. Whereas, in practice, the productivity rise is not realized as increased income for the farmers but works adversely works on pushing the prices of that crop further down. What is proposed is that increased agri productivity will lead to increase in income of the farmers. In practice, what happens is that the increased flow of agri-produce in the market pulls the price down and neutralized the gain of the producer….

And after describing what is the problem in this approach he adds on that:

… development sector programs in agriculture, domestic as well as international agri-commodities trade and poverty are linked very closely and in a direct fashion.

To be able to make a case for this argument, we need to look at the three aspects that have been mentioned above in more details. In this post I look at the issues with present argi-commodities trade situation that contributes to the problem.

A little history of why and how Agri-Commodities trade begun:

All producers, produce their commodities so that they can meet their own needs by using part of the produce and selling the remaining of it to make money that will allow them to buy other commodities and services of their need. Over the centuries this producer- consumer transaction has become more nuanced and complex with different layers of institutions and individuals distancing the producer from the consumer. All of this started in the interest of the producer in the early 1840s in USA, where farmers used to load their grains on barges and send it up a river to Chicago market. If they did not find buyers or if the prices were too low, they would dump their grains in the river rather than transport it back, as the losses they incurred there tremendous. To address this came Chicago board of trade. This helped the farmers trade virtually across geographies and in time ( also known as futures). All of these mechanisms was to reduce the risk a producer bears.[1]

Situation of farmers in Asia and Africa today

This has translated beneficially to the farmers in the developed nations. But the lesser developed and developing nations still grapple with the issues the American farmers faced in the 1840s. Farmers in India even today dump their produce instead of transporting as that would mean a heavy loss to them in certain periods of the year. The situation has not improved yet.  But the same produce within few weeks time appreciates in price upto 400%. And the farmer never realizes the profit from this appreciation.

The reasons for such losses are [2]-

  1. Due to better technologies agricultural production has increased. This has lead to trends of longterm price fall and short term price instability.
  2. Demand of agricultural commodities has reduced due to slower population growth.

There have been enough initiatives nationally and globally to address these two issues regarding the agri-commodities trade that have failed in the past, to count a few:

  1. Diversification of products vertically into more value added products and horizontally into non-agri products was tried out. But this had limited impact, as to do both  ways of diversification other supporting infrastructure, standards and mechanism need to be in place.
  2. Due to donor  thrust on deregulatory and liberalizing, government spending and desire to intervene in these markets have gone down. This has made the position of the produce only weaker than what it earlier was.
  3. There have been attempts at supply management through national and global mechanisms.  While nationally the state marketing boards were good at providing ancillary services, they failed at their main job of price setting,quality management and in providing it all efficiently. Internationally commodity agreements were made in 1970s and 1980s to maintain physical buffer stock to influence world price. They did maintain prices for a while for few agri-commodities, but these agreements eventually collapsed. That was largely due to withdrawal of support from consuming countries, due to difficulties involved in influencing price especially in an environment where supply expansion brought about by increased agri-productivity and limited financial resources.
  4. Along with supply management complementary international initiatives that made financial transfers to national governments as a compensation for fall in commodity prices and therefore export earning. But these had little impact as these were response post a crisis (ex-post), another drawback was, they imposed conditions and had strict eligibility requirements. All of this made this effort turn out to be of little use in addressing the “commodity- crisis”.
  5. Another shot at addressing commodity crisis was by changing the focus of the donors towards market based risk management tools like derivatives and insurances. These instruments still have limites use in lesser developed and developing countries sue to the cost associated with them.

I will write more of what has gone into agri-commodities trade nationally and internationally as a followup to this post. But looking at what has been done in past, it looks like the interventions have tried to only address the symptoms of the problems associated with this space and not uproot the problem itself.

                                                           

[1] Eleni Gabre-Madhin: A commodities exchange for Ethiopia

[2]Rethinking Tropical Agricultural Commodities, DFID

‘Flaneur’ing – Mumbai Sea front

Mumbai Sea frontI set out from home with an unknown anxiety that had crept into my being later in the day. I reach the sea front with an expectation that the expansive skies and water (ignoring the filth) will settle me.
“I carry this book everyday and not write a word”, I begin to think. Also expecting secretly to also get rid of the anxiety, I pull that small A6 notebook out and begin to scribble what I see…

Its a monsoon evening and the night bears the promise of a new moon.The water line appears a bit receded than the usual and the wind mildly stronger. The sky is unlike those of a rainy season, with flaky, clear clouds. Cranes fly lazily past. The waters brimming with filth and the poles in the water near the shores, embarrassed of their own dying utility,  meekly tell you not to venture beyond. The crabs come out of the gap between the cement tiles of the paved shore. Talkative children returning from school, college kids’ bantering, tiny tot’s gibberish, and elderly people’s conversation make the background sound. Just a typical evening in most coastal city in India.

Time passed by, just as the wind that rushes in, into the city from the sea. The stillness drives a sense of being fixed like those poles in the choppy waters. The sun has set in the horizon splashing the people with few solemn moments, like the curtains drawing close on a stage. The city meanwhile rushes to catch the suburban trains to head back home.

An alternate ending to this post before editing the last para was: 

An hour as past and I have become that pole in the filthy waters.The Sun has set and its time to go.