Friday, May 30, 2008

The Original Argumentative Indian and the Politics of Food

Our blogsite pays homage to Amartya Sen and his concept of the Argumentative Indian. Dr. Sen himself has now stirred up a veritable storm of argument with an article in the New York Times on the looming food crisis. Within 24 hours the article generated so many responses that the New York Times had to declare that it could no longer entertain any more comments on the subject !

In the article, entitled The Rich Get Hungrier, Dr. Sen has chosen to place blame on misdirected Government policies such as alternative land use, growing purchasing power generating more demand than hitherto and imbalance in wealth distribution.

The comments from readers range from the downright dismissive, such as

“There is nothing new which Prof. Sen has brought out. The better thing would have been if Prof. Sen had come up with the solutions of the problem”

to more reasoned analyses and differences of opinion.

The fact that a voice as eminent as Dr. Sen's has now been added to the whole discussion of food will have the welcome result of focusing private and public attention more intently on the whole subject.

And not too soon either, considering that (according to a summary of studies conducted in the U.K.)

  • Over 9 million people die worldwide each year because of hunger and malnutrition. 5 million are children.
  • Approximately 1.2 billion people suffer from hunger (deficiency of calories and protein);
    -Some 2 to 3.5 billion people have micronutrient deficiency (deficiency of vitamins and minerals);
  • Yet, some 1.2 billion suffer from obesity (excess of fats and salt, often accompanied by deficiency of vitamins and minerals);
  • Food wastage is also high:
    In the United Kingdom, “a shocking 30-40% of all food is never eaten;”
    In the last decade the amount of food British people threw into the bin went up by 15%;
    Overall, £20 billion (approximately $38 billion US dollars) worth of food is thrown away, every year.
    In the US 40-50% of all food ready for harvest never gets eaten;
  • The impacts of this waste is not just financial. Environmentally this leads to:
    Wasteful use of chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides;
    More fuel used for transportation;
    More rotting food, creating more methane — one of the most harmful greenhouse gases that contributes to climate change.
  • The direct medical cost of hunger and malnutrition is estimated at $30 billion each year.

    In India, with its stark contrasts between lavish feasts and widespread starvation, the situation is made even more poignant by the fact that according to Government sources from the Ministry of Food Processing, the annual food wastage in the country due to inadequate storage and transport infrastructure is Rs. 58,000 crores annually (close to US$15 billion)

    In order to forestall a shortage, the Government of India has now placed restrictions on the exports of rice from the country, provoking an outcry from traders bemoaning the loss of foreign exchange earnings in a rising market. It is worth remembering what Mahatma Gandhi said “There is enough in this world for man's need but not for man's greed” .
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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Recipes for the Melting Pot – further insights on immigration

“Assimilation Factor” is the new mantra in the Great Immigration Debate that is now raging in the USA and Western Europe. The extent – or lack – of this “Assimilation Factor” is causing great apprehension among European traditionalists. In a 2007 article entitled “England is Vanishing” by Cal Thomas in the blogsite this fear is expressed in the following words

“..a record influx of foreigners is threatening to erode the character of the land of William Shakespeare and overpowering monarchs, a land that served as the cradle for much of American thought, law and culture..”
In the article Thomas makes it clear that he is taking aim at legal immigration, i.e., a “record influx of foreigners” that has been sanctioned by the U.K. Government, presumably because it was deemed to be in the interest of Britain. He goes on to offer his own diagnosis of the situation

“..The difference between many of the current immigrants and those of the past is that the previous ones wanted to become fully American or fully British. The current ones, in too many cases, would destroy what makes our countries unique...”

Is this just Eurocentric xenophobia or is there a wider issue here ? After all, the force of home-grown immigrant terrorism has been felt in Britain when British-born Muslims from South Asia staged a deadly attack on the London Underground. And in Belgium, Malika el Aroud a woman of Moroccan origin who is now a Belgian citizen, is openly advocating Jihad and support for Al Qaeda on her website, according to a news item in the New York Times – while drawing the equivalent of US$ 1,100 per month in welfare benefits from the Belgian Government ! The Belgian courts have refused to convict her, accepting her defence that exercising her freedom of speech is by itself no crime. After all, Malika knows the rules. “I write in a legal way,” she said. “I know what I’m doing. I’m Belgian. I know the system.”

In the U.S.A., the Manhattan Institute of Policy Research has published a report dealing with the Assimilation Factor of immigrants. As may be expected from this prestigious institute, this is a serious attempt at an objective and scientific evaluation of the Assimilation Factor. The study deals, among other criteria, with cultural assimilation which it defines as
“... the extent to which immigrants, or groups of immigrants, adopt customs and practices indistinguishable in aggregate from those of the native-born. Factors considered in the measurement of cultural assimilation include intermarriage and the ability to speak English, which have been the focus of many previous efforts to track immigrant assimilation in the United States. Cultural assimilation also incorporates information on marital status and childbearing.”

An unexpected (to me) conclusion of the study was that Chinese and Indian immigrants are the least integrated culturally with the American populace at large ! Those interested in the methodology that gave rise to this conclusion can read the full article.

Far from being xenophobic, the Manhattan Institute is careful to point out that
“..It is important to note that cultural assimilation is not a measure of a group’s conformity with any preconceived ideal. Changes in the customs and practices of the native-born can promote cultural assimilation just as easily as changes among the foreign-born.”
Could it be that the ideal of a monotonously uniform cultural pattern is not the most desirable scenario ? New York's former mayor David Dinkins may have defined the correct objetive when he described his city as no longer being the “Melting Pot” but a “Glorious Mosaic”. The question is how to make the different elements of the mosaic blend into a harmonious pattern.
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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bollywood in bed with Hollywood ?

The party scene at this year's Cannes Film Festival is apparently buzzing with news that Indian interests, led by Reliance Big Entertainment (an affiIiate of Reliance Industries), are moving into the world of Hollywood film production. Reliance is reportedly providing substantial development financing to a number of Hollywood production entities, including the production vehicles of megastars such as Jim Carrey, George Clooney, Tom Hanks' Playtone Productions and Brad Pitt. After MGM and Paramount, will Anil Ambani be the next dominant force in La-La Land ?

The Indian foray into film production in the USA is not new of course. Ashok Amritraj, the brother of the tennis stars Vijay and Anand, has been active in this area for several years now, with at least a score or more of TV and big screen films to his credit. The appearance of a $100 billion conglomerate like Reliance has stirred the pot to the point that even the Wall Street Journal has sat up and taken note. With more and more funds coming on to the international investment scene from India, there have been other alliances reported as well, such as a pact between the Lionsgate organization of Hollywood and Kishore Lulla's Eros International Group, for reciprocal arrangements to release Lionsgate's English language productions in India and Eros's Bollywood films in the USA.

The Reliance investment package includes plans to spend $1 billion to produce over 60 feature films in nine languages over the next two years. As a result Reliance will gain Indian distribution rights for these films.

And it's not just the area of film production and distribution – Reliance, already India's largest operator of movie theaters, are also moving ahead with plans to open a chain of 250 cinemas across the United States, according to other Press reports. Will cinemas screening Indian films be as prolific in US neighborhoods as the burgeoning Indian restaurant scene ?
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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Triplets and more...

We love it when people read our blog and send us their comments, reactions, responses, appreciation etc. My post on my mother and her triplet brother and sister got such a response when NDTV India - one of India's leading Hindi news channels -called me asking for contact details of the three of them for a programme that they were doing on twins & triplets. So now the triplets - who were famous within our family - will be seen on national TV! For those interested in watching this programme - Salam Zindagi on NDTV India - the details follow. Telecast timing: Friday May 23 at 8 p.m. IST and repeat telecast again on Saturday 2p.m

The link to NDTV India for those who can't tune in from overseas etc is Read more!

No Darkies please, we're Indian !

When it was announced that U.S. style cheerleaders were being imported to spur on the teams in the India Premier League, everyone agreed that this move would add colour to the traditionally sedate cricket scene. Here is the link to the story on Economic Times. Apparently, however, on one occasion this added more colour than the Desi audience could stomach. It has been widely reported in the Indian press that two cheerleaders, part of a group imported from London, were unacceptable to the organisers of a recent match at Mohali, and asked to leave the grounds. The two unfortunate young ladies reportedly exited in tears. Their shortcoming ? They were black !

The Indian yen for light complexions is not a secret, of course, especially to those who have perused the matrimonial ads. These are full of insertions that sheepishly admit to “wheatish” or proudly proclaim “fair” on behalf of their candidates. None claim to be glowingly dusky. Then of course there have been reports of monkey gestures directed towards black athletes of visiting teams. In Australia, Harbajan Singh barely got away from the charge of racism, he denied describing Symonds as a “monkey”, pleading that what he had actually said was “Teri Ma ki..” an expression at which I personally would have taken greater offence if directed at me !

In spite of all this, Indians are generally quiet about their colour complexes in public, and much given to vigorous protests when at the receiving end of racist slurs. The recent case of Shilpa Shetty comes to mind. The outrage her experience caused in England was shared around the world, and the sympathy factor propelled her to even higher levels of celebrity (much deserved – I think everyone will agree she is a delightful personality, who handled herself with great dignity during her ordeal)

Undoubtedly the case of the two unfortunate black cheerleaders will be widely reported in the English press, and the Indian reaction to this incident (official and unofficial) will be interesting to follow. And to think all this is going on while in the United States a black candidate is gathering massive support as a Presidential nominee !
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Monday, May 19, 2008

Plus ça change....

A look backwards took place in my mind on returning from a recent trip to India – a country undeniably on the edge of great things, with a prosperous new middle class (300 million + ?) fueling rapid urban development. Lurking among all the buoyant statistics though is another which says that 300 million people live below the official poverty line and another 300 million or so inhabit the shadowy world between the very poor and the middle class ranks. These 600 million are now faced with the phenomenon of rising food costs worldwide. A recent New York Times report stated that working class families in New Delhi were having to do without milk or meat in order to buy rice. One wonders what else they are forced to give up.

Trying to explain all this to myself took me back again to India – this time in memory, to a hot summer day in 1967, when four of us sat for hours in a suffocating, dark room - air conditioning and lights turned off by an angry mob of striking workers. We were in a factory, 40 miles from Calcutta in the town of Kalyani. As I sat there, sweating, there was ample time to think back on the events which had landed me in this situation.

At that time I was the head of Finance and Administration of a British engineering company.

Business organisations all over the post-war world were embracing new developments in automation, computerisation and modern management techniques to survive. Calcutta too and the rest of West Bengal, traditionally the center of India's engineering sector began to take steps in that direction. India's first school for graduate business studies had been established in Calcutta in 1961 with MIT collaboration, funding from the Ford Foundation and with a young eager faculty, some of whom were my friends. Companies such as IBM set up operations in Calcutta. Professionals like myself now had access to courses and seminars that put us in touch with the latest developments in management thinking and technology of the '60s. There had been very little fresh investment in India's manufacturing sector since World War II and we were all excited by the prospect of being able to participate in the transformation of West Bengal's Rust Belt into a modern industrial environment.

Unfortunately, the modernisation of businesses in the 1960's invariably involved downsizing through automation and outsourcing (not unlike developments today). And also not unlike today, it was a difficult social argument to promote a degree of immediate unemployment in return for future growth. It was an even more difficult argument in Calcutta and West Bengal generally, which in the '60s was the nerve center of the Communists and Leftist movements of India. In 1967 they had come to power in the State Government and were not about to acquiesce in the loss of jobs. Closures or downsizing provided an obvious target as another example of capitalist exploitation. In the case of a British-owned business, the imperialist bogey could also be trotted out for good measure.

While all this was taking place our company had drawn up plans for modernization that would involve closing some processes. Approximately 75 of a total force of 500 would be made redundant through a Voluntary Retirement Scheme.

With the intention of finalizing these plans, a meeting was arranged with workers' representatives in the factory. The company was represented by our British Managing Director, myself, the Works Manager and a personnel executive. We soon found out that there was no negotiating intended on the other side. The Trade Union officials were under political instructions. We were summarily asked to withdraw all proposals for staff reduction. When we refused, we were advised that we would not be permitted to leave. The doors were locked, the power turned off, the phones disconnected and we realised that we were now being "Gheraoed" – i.e., subjected to a compulsory sit-in. We sat listening to the workers chanting slogans - inspiring ones at first such as "Long live the Revolution" - but as time wore on, more personal and offensive sentiments began to be expressed. I envied our British Managing Director, who couldn't understand a word of what was being shouted.

There had been instances of Gheraos continuing for 12 hours or more, until exhaustion or threats had forced the employers' representatives to capitulate or be carried out in ill health. We wondered how long our ordeal would last. Initially we did not really feel physically threatened. As the hours wore on though we all remembered with discomfort the infamous Jessop Steel Plant incident in 1949, two years after Independence, when a labor dispute turned murderous and a British engineer and his Indian colleague were pushed into a blast furnace. We had no blast furnaces in our factory, but there was no shortage of iron rods in an engineering establishment. We loosened our shirts in the heat and reconciled ourselves to waiting things out, since we did not really have a choice. There was an air of unreality about the whole proceedings.

Looking back on events, it seems incredible to me now that we sat through eight hours of this noisy confinement without food, water or access to bathrooms (Don't ask !). Suddenly the noise subsided, the door opened and we were advised we could go home. The union gave us notice that the workers were now officially on strike, and the management would have no access to the factory until the Company agreed to abandon any thought of labour reduction. We learned later that our workers had refused to be more harsh with us and insisted that we be released without further physical abuse.

We were eventually able to resolve the issue through measures which included protracted negotiation, some legal action and token improvements on our initial offer. The process took several weeks, during which time the striking workers received no wages.

Some time after these events, during one of my factory visits, I was talking to one of the workers and asked him how he had fared through those weeks. He told me that the strike had erupted during a period when he had fallen into debt because of the serious illness of his 2-year old child, who had then died as he could not feed his family and continue all the treatments at the same time. There was no animosity in his attitude - just an air of quiet resignation that I found more wrenching than any demonstration of rage or grief.

Management school theories seemed far away. I felt I was back in the Industrial Revolution, when conditions had prompted Thomas Hood in 1843 to write the lines

“Oh ! God ! that bread should be so dear,
And flesh and blood so cheap !”

As the French say “.. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.” ( “The more it changes, the more it's the same thing” )
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