Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I too had a dream

I was looking for that one "unputdownable" book since I came back to India. "I too had a dream" (as told to) by Gauri Salvi is a highly addictive account of the journey of Dr. Verghese Kurien. I was first pushed towards reading this book after I read this news. At the time, I was still a post doc at Michigan State University (MSU). So the fact that Dr. Kurien did his masters there, made me feel oddly happy. As I began googling him, I came across this,  which obviously led me to Shyam Benegal's  Manthan. After watching Mathan, I had made a mental note that I am going to read more about this. 

Dr. Kurien did not want to be a dairy engineer. He went to MSU with a sincere intention of studying  metallurgy, even though his scholarship terms clearly stated that he would return as a dairy engineer. He took nominal dairy courses (sadly, MSU was and still is one of the leading universities in dairy engineering in the world), and returned with a cocky assumption that he is going to work for a large corporate. However, when he was asked to cough up Rs. 30,000 for the expenses government incurred on the account of his education or work at a dairy for five years, he chose the latter. He was sent to Anand, Gujrath, with a note on his documents that he would not make a good employee. He had nothing to do for the first year at Anand. He would send his resignation to the government every month, urging them to release him instead of wasting more government money. In what might be called a sudden turn of fate, he had to get his act together to help Tribhuvandas Patel, who was organizing a farmer's ilk cooperative under the guidance of Vallabh Bhai Patel. Kurien started as a technical expert and then never looked back. The book is full of many amusing and enlightening anecdotes. But I think I would like to share some of the important points Kurien makes. 

1. Foreign Aid and subsidies

Kurien elaborates the role of foreign aid and subsidies in the development of people with remarkable perspicuity. In the late sixties, India faced an acute shortage of milk. The per capita consumption of milk of the nation was steadily decreasing and it was necessary to build infrastructure, and supply chains that would resolve this. Kurien along with a visiting professor from Harvard, Michael Halse, wrote the proposal for "Operation Flood", which was implemented from the early seventies through nineties. In 1998, India surpassed the US in the production of milk. And today we are the  world leaders in milk production. This could happen because, instead of accepting excess milk powder that European countries were willing to donate as aid, it was sold at market prices, after reconstituting and packaging as milk. The revenue collected from that aid was used to buy infrastructure to start co-operative milk societies all over the nation, which are still in operation. So instead of feeding free milk to Indian poor and creating more demand (potentially for foreign investors), it was used as a long term investment. Kurien is also skeptical of the various subsidies that the farmers around the world get. It is true, even today (and even in the developed world) that subsidies usually benefit lobbies and corporations more than the farmers. In some cases, subsidies actually create a lot of unwanted problems even for common people (case in point: the various ill effects of the corn lobby in the United States). 

2. Foreign Investment

Amul rose to glory at a time when India had highly regulated foreign investment policies. At one point Nestle invited him to discuss their intention of setting up a plant in India. The chairman of the board, casually mentioned that Nestle could not delegate the work to 'natives' because it is highly technical. Kurien stormed out of the meeting reminding them that they were actually talking to a native. Although over-regulation of foreign investments has led to problems of the other extreme for India in the late nineties, the nationwide networks which were built for farmers during the post independence years would not have been possible if we had left the country open to investment. I have a placard-waving-hippie inside my mind when it comes to most of these issues, but I genuinely believe that farmers should be able to earn good money, no matter where they come from. 

3. Take expert opinion with a pinch of salt

It was a "well known fact" when Kurien started his career that you "cannot" manufacture powdered form of buffalo milk. All experts, from all the leading milk producing countries (New Zealand, Denmark) endorsed this view. However, it was made possible, on a commercial scale at Amul. This reminds me of so many rampant expert opinions that are currently being thrown around in the petroleum and bio fuel industry. It is very important to find out for whom the said expert works, before accepting his views as gospel. Often expert opinions are also driven by the collective opinion of a particular lobby that the expert works for. 

There is this criticism that Amul could not be repeated in other states. It has a lot to do with the rigid bureaucratic structure that we have come to accept when it comes to anything related to the government. When I hear the word co-operative society, the next word that comes to my mind is corruption. However, when I think of "for profit" corporations, the next word that comes to my mind is exploitation. We live in a world where corporations have not just restricted themselves to exploiting human beings, they have also done a lot of irreparable damage to the planet. The politics of profit often replaces the brightest minds with the "corporate conscience", where simple, age old concepts of taking collective responsibility of our planet, are replaced by some convoluted logic "backed by research". We all have had the misfortune of witnessing 5 million barrels of crude oil gushing into our ocean as the "world's best technical experts" watched it helplessly for three months. 

Sustainable growth can only be achieved by creating self-enriching loops. It is just as true for people as it is for the environment. It is high time we start using the words "nurture" and "profit" together. I think the Amul story has those words written all over it. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

No. I don't think so.

Sunday Times is one of the reasons I came back to India. Waking up on a Sunday morning and picking up the fat TOI, with a hot cup of tea, has always been one of the happiest moments of my week. But these days, newspapers and news channels make me gloomy, mostly because of the rampant acts of misdemeanors, assaults and casual instances of disrespectful treatment of women of my country. In the past few years, my brain has become more and more sensitive to a thought that was mostly subconscious through out my early twenties. Initially it started off  as a comparison between Indian women and Western women. Of how our values are built and how we look at life. There is a clear difference, and for that matter, I am not even a stereotypical "Indian" woman. And that is the problem. One cannot generalize a typical woman of any culture, religion, social class or nationality. We become what we go through, what we endure or enjoy growing up, how our mothers treat us and most importantly, how our fathers treat our mothers.

Women are expected to follow certain rules in every culture. Some conservative politicians/gurus never hesitate to jump to conclusions about how following Western culture is causing girls to get raped. But what does the contemporary Indian culture have to offer? With all the famous 100 crore grossing Bollywood movies, which always include a mindless item song? How are we helping young girls realize that their bodies are not up for abject objectification, if Kareena Kapoor flaunts her size whatever body in skimpy Indian clothes to a song that literally asks the man to devour her with alcohol? And then she proudly tells an interviewer that, for this song she had to have a slightly voluptuous figure, because the song is "desi" (establishing her power to control her body any which way she wants). Together with the lyrics, the lewd facial expressions, the dance moves it is worse than what a short skirt can do to "Indian culture".

Irrespective of the cultural trends in the media, it is equally true that we cannot control the media. We cannot control what the society/media wants men and women to believe. It is not practically possible to stop the advent of any culture or trend in a democracy. You cannot restrict  individual freedom. Moreover,  using our freedom with responsibility takes a lot more conscience and care than following somebody's diktat and being disgruntled about it. This kind of freedom also helps in building better/ safer societies.

 But I am starting to believe that a significant part of how men treat women happens at home. The most influential person in a young girl's or a young boy's life when it comes to perception/treatment of women is their dad. And one of the most powerful relationship dynamic we grow up observing very closely is that of our parents. It has long been proven that a supportive family helps women come out of a lot of traps that they encounter when they step out of home into the real world. Our parents' voice often becomes our inner voice and our parents' choices often deeply influence our choices. It is easier to shrug off/ fight against the media and popular culture. But it is difficult and sometimes impossible to trace our bias/fears/emotional problems back to our upbringing without an intervention. It is difficult for many women to accept that they have a choice. That they can walk out of an abusive relationship. That being healthy and happy is more important than being "taken" or "married". That there is also such a thing as emotional abuse, where being constantly belittled for lack of intelligence/beauty/personality can lead to a long term loss of self respect and esteem. Most of these things are considered okay because the abusers often sound confident to the point of making them believe that "this is how the world works".

I don't think India is ready for My Short Skirt. In fact, in my personal opinion, it won't work for India. Western feminism will not work in India because India needs to develop her own identity when it comes to women's issues. And the first and foremost freedom we all need is the freedom to say NO. Not just when it comes to sexual offenses, but also when it comes to the decisions of women who hold positions of power (or are on their way there). We don't expect men to protect us as much as we expect them to back off gracefully when we say NO. A NO is not always a rejection of your masculinity/personality/power/ability/intellect. It is not always a unidirectional and absolute dynamic. It is not always related to the protection of our chastity, or the proclamation of our superiority. A NO can actually be about us. It could be related to our desire to have a choice. To imagine a life for ourselves, which may not include you at that point. It could be related to our dreams. It could be related to a fulfilling relationship we have found in someone else. It could be related to our confusions about what we want to do, and the time that we need to figure it out. It could also be related to our doubts about whether we could be right for you (or the other way round). It could be related to a conflict that involves others. It could be against injustice that we think we have the courage to fight. It could be against a malpractice that we do not wish to be a part of. It could be about our money, which we wish to save up for our kids. It could be about a lot of things that are beyond you. And if we get the freedom to say NO, it makes us feel a lot more respected than to have you all eager to protect us against evil (and honestly, we are also very grateful for that).

And this cannot be taught to grown up men who are in jail under rape charges. This has to be taught to young boys and girls. By their moms and dads. In part as as education and in part by example. And I am able to think about this on my own because I have been raised by one of the most influential feminists in my life -- my dad.