Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Can big ever be good?

A friend sent me a link
A fascinating interview, where the interviewer raises an interesting question. The discussion is in the context of markets being driven by large companies, brands and monopolistic organizations and how it has impacted the global economy.

The question: Can big ever be good?
Answer by Andrew Simms, one of the authors: “The problem with scale in the economy - be it at an enterprise or an institution - is that being big makes it harder and harder to be responsive to local circumstances. We have not yet found a way to make large institutions work well at a local level. When you have too many large organizations you get imbalance, frailty and vulnerability. Diversity of scale, size and range and type of organization - as in nature - is an insurance policy against disaster. Optimal diversity delivers greater resilience. That's not to say you can't have any large organizations, but the problem at the moment is whichever sector you look in there has been a relentless trend towards ever fewer, ever larger companies dominating larger shares of the market. The larger they are the harder they fall”.

Yes, when they fall, they fall harder and badly hurt everyone around them due to ripple effect. But even before they fall, it is anything but ideal. I liked the way the author drew parallels between single large organization s controlling the majority and the lack of diversity in nature. It is clearly bound to fail. Just like monoculture of crops/ species is bad for the ecosystem and risky for the natural world so is a monoculture of businesses and institutions risky for the social –economic world. Today the world appears to be run by a handful of organizations and institutions that control everything –food, water, natural resources and even how one should live. To gain more insights on this read Vandana Shiva’s Stolen Harvest.

When it comes to food, the agenda of a handful of corporations that control it all is to move away from a sustainable production system emphasizing crop diversity to a large scale, monoculture production system that is often unsustainable. A common argument raised by those who endorse this strategy is that it helps in combating food insecurity issues. Could this be true when reports indicate that the number of hungry people in the world is on the rise? Could this be true, when ironically enough you see that the food producers are primarily the ones that are starving? A good example is India, a traditionally agrarian society where malnutrition among children is twice that of Sub-Saharan Africa! If we are indeed producing in large quantities then how come there are so many hungry people around?

Well, to clear things a bit Frances Moore Lappe was in campus as part of the distinguished lecture series. She is the author of Diet for a Small Planet, and Hopes Edge and also one of the founders of Food First (a.k.a. Institute for Food & Development Policy). Her talk was interesting to say the least. It was sprinkled with all the relevant buzz words associated with food these days- “food insecurity”, “food sovereignty”, “food democracy” …

She believes that this idea that there is scarcity of food is a created one. The fact that there is not enough food being produced to feed the world is simply a myth. She gave some numbers to prove her point. The issue is not how much is produced but what is done with what is produced. According to her (or her sources), 1/2 of the grains produced in the world is used for feeding livestock and 1/3rd of fish caught from the oceans is converted to fish feed!..and so on and so forth. Vandana Shiva also discusses these points in length in her book- Stolen Harvest. She says..

"In a competitive model such as the livestock industry, grain is diverted from human consumption to intensive feed for livestock. It takes 2kgs of grain to produce one kg of poultry, 4kgs of grain to produce 1kg of pork , and 8kgs of grain to produce 1kg of beef." She also says : "The shift from a cooperative, integrated system of agriculture ( which is what traditional agriculture is about), to a competitive fragmented one creates additional pressures on scarce land and grain resources. This in turn leads to non-sustainability, violence to animals, and lower productivity when all systems are assessed".

Thus, what is being experienced now is the negative effects of industrial agriculture where focus is on production of monocultures such as rice and wheat and now corn and sugarcane with the increasing demand for bio-fuels. These are "food production" mainly aimed to meet the international market demand. Vandan Shiva calls it "the recipe for starving people, not feeding them". Lappe considers it the work of some very imaginative multinational corporations who literally decides who gets what, how much and when. Their control over the supply of world’s resources is the illegal power they hold and is what needs to be captured. There is a Monsanto that decides what we should grow and not grow which in turn impacts what we should eat and not eat, there is aWall-Mart that decides what people can buy and cannot buy, there is a Vedanta Res.Ltd who decides what natural resources belongs to whom and there is the “rich” North that decides what the “poor” South can do and cannot do.Clearly "big is not good".

There has been many and enough revolutions that bare evidence to all this. The green revolution, the white revolution, the blue revolution. I think it is time for a new revolution that restores sanity in the world, that restores sovereignty and democracy to the masses in the truest sense of the words. This is a sentiment echoed by many like -Dr Vandana Shiva and Frances Lappe when they talk on food security and by Arundhati Roy when she talks on human rights.

I realize that this post started at one point and ended at a different point but clearly they are not disconnected.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Is it a Mad Mad World!?!

It appears as if time is running ahead and we are struggling to catch up. In reality time has not increased its pace, but we live in a world where there is too much of everything and you don’t pay your full attention to anything. There is a superficiality or incompleteness in everything you do. You are in the middle of everything that is happening yet there is a detachment from it all. There is dissatisfaction and lack of accomplishment and to overcome that you take on more and next you know you are stuck in a vicious circle. And then you complain that there is not enough time to do anything..that time is speeding away. Utter madness!

If you need to shake yourself out of my poorly articulated high-funda banter check out this song (not the best version in terms of video quality). Plenty time or no time, I manage to get my weekly fix of tamil/telugu movie. During one such happy escapes came across this new telugu movie called Leader with a decent theme and a couple of good songs. Liked this song in particular and apparently there is some history attached to it as well.

Listen to the dramatic dialogue folowed by the song..Dont we all wish for a "kotha prapancham" (= a "new world" in telugu). Chaala bagundi man! Chaala bagundi :)

Monday, November 08, 2010

Following Raavnodbhavam.....

..... and all the associated fun and the artistic and cultural experience it offered, a bunch of us decided to meet up the following weekend for some more fun and artistic and cultural experience from Kerala, but of a different kind. I suppose, all of us had not had our fill of what Kerala had to offer. So, spearheaded by our Punjabi-Canadian friend, we decided to get together at my place for an evening of Malayalam cinema, and gup-shup flavored with primarily South Indian delicacies.

Movie watching itself can be entertaining but when it is watched with friends and you have a comment and opinion on every scene, it adds to the entertainment factor. It is also interesting how when we watch a movie from your part of the world in the company of others, especially if they are not from the same place as you, you start observing things you never saw before. For example, in this particular movie, we counted the number of times the lead female character gets slapped by the different men in her life- by her fiancé, by her dad… Funnily enough, as pointed out by a friend, with each slap her love and respect for that man grows. And this is a contemporary movie with a contemporary theme even though set in a semi-rural area, where the main characters are supposedly educated folks. It is said that cinema is generally a reflection of the society and Malayalam movies are generally known to be realistic. If that is the case what is this movie conveying here? Weirdly enough,I have watched the movie before but I never paid attention to this little detail. I am shocked!

Anyways, the evening was fun and the food was great. Food fest would be stretching it a bit but we made idli-sambar and chicken tikkas with green and red bell-pepper, with red wine and Guava juice to wash it down. I made some payasma and a friend made chocolates for dessert. We talked late into the evening, bitching about professors, sharing our respective field trip experiences to remote regions of India, the best tea and local snacks we enjoyed from the local chai-kadas and many other stories. Before the evening ended we promised to meet up at least once a month with a similar agenda. I guess we all had good fun :)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


It's been a crazy couple of weeks with too many things going on. Luckily, most of it are of the interesting and satisfying kind.

Began with the visit by the amazing team from Kalamandalam. It was the culmination of months of effort by a friend who is a theatre & dance student at the Uni. and is passionate about anything that has to do with Kerala (except Keralan men...I think :D).

Since I was in the loop every step of the way, I could not contain my excitement when the team finally arrived in town. The program was planned as a three full day workshop with a final performance by Kalamandalam Shanmughan. Day one started with a lecture demo by Kathakali artist Kalamandalam Shanmugham and Shri Kaladharan,- Kathakali connoisseur, scholar and translator. Following it was the makeup workshop, which is quite an elaborate procedure for Kathakali and every color, design and look has a significance.The make up artist of the group was Kalamandalam Sukumaran, a talented (obviously), patient and sweet man. Since the team had only arrived the previous night, Shir Kaladharan, who is the official translator was too tired. So other than explaining the historical or mythological significance of the the makeup and its elaborate steps, I was conferred the role of the "un-official translator" translating all the questions from the audience and the responses and explanation from Sukumaran from english to malayalam and malayalam to english, respectively. What an experience it was!

Day two was the mudras and movements workshop, exclusively for the students of Dance & Theatre and day three was the grand finale. It was indeed the grand finale, with Kalamandalam Shanmugham performing Raavondbhavam- roughly translated-Raavana's coming into being. I have no words to describe the experience. At one point I almost wanted to run to the stage and fall at his feet and at another time I wanted to break into tears. Weird! :D

I am no connoisseur or an expert but even for a novice like me Kala.Shanmugham's performance was so enthralling, his expressions so exquisite that I wanted the night to never end and the performance to go on.

A few glimpses from that magical night...

Preparations for the performance starts about 4-5 hours before the show, beginning with the make up, followed by donning the elaborate costume, the head gear and the rest. It starts with the main artist doing his own initial make up and the rest is done with the help of the make up artist.

The main make up ( putting on the chutti..etc.) done by make up expert Kalamandalam Sukumaran.

Kalamandalam Shanmughan giving final touches to the make up.

Ravanan is all his glory!

The performance lasted about 1:30 hrs. The most amazing 1:30 hrs. I am not familiar with all the mudras and expressions, so it really helped that the performance had sub titles. Yes you read it right-subtitles! If I was watching the same performance at some temple in Kerala, under the glow of oil lamps ( the way it is traditionally done), it would have been a different and amazing experience. But, a lot of what was presented would have been lost in translation. Lucky being amidst a western audience, the wonder of modern technology and sub titles, the experience was spectacular and satisfying.

To be continued.. :)