Rio+20’s bottom up initiatives hold out hope

Dev Nadkarni

This month thousands of the world’s political leaders, scientists, corporate heads and representatives from civil society, non government organisations and interest groups will gather at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (better known as the Rio+20 summit) in Brazil. They will deliberate on ways to promote greater social equity by reducing poverty while ensuring environmental protection.

None of these ideas are new and such jamborees have been held periodically in many parts of the world since the first such conference in Rio twenty years ago. Their achievement so far can at best be termed patchy. Climate Change conferences have failed to achieve consensus repeatedly generating skepticism around mega events like Rio+20. But they have succeeded in greatly raising awareness about environmental degradation and the progressive loss of biodiversity. They have helped bring ideas like sustainability and social equity into the public discourse. They have catalysed the incorporation of these concepts in development initiatives especially at local, grassroots levels.

This has helped percolate these ideas through levels of government and through the media into communities’ grassroots activities like agriculture, fisheries and helped promote ideas of conserving resources around these practices. The awareness of sustainable practices is much more out there among the people than ever before and being involved in the activities themselves, it is best for decision makers to hear straight from communities and people who are at the coalface.

Ear to the grassroots

Fortunately, the Rio+20 has taken this on board. Rio+20 differs from previous conferences in that it has a built in system for information and communications technology infrastructure to involve the wider community. Any person from anywhere in the world can participate in the pre-summit deliberations using simple web technology. Submissions, which can be made on more than a dozen listed topics, will be collated and suggestions and opinions from common people will hopefully be presented to the leaders before the final deliberations. How much this ICT-aided attempt at to ensure inclusiveness will succeed remains to be seen. But it is a great start at involving hands on people at the grassroots of human activity.

If this highly democratic looking system really works – which we will know in the weeks after the conference concludes later this month – the more inclusive bottom up approach will be a refreshing change over previous conferences that have deliberated at the highest political, commercial and scientific levels with little active input from the grassroots – except for scenes of protests outside meeting venues. It is time policy makers took on board feedback straight from the people who are directly affected in terms of their livelihoods, habitats, shelters, lifestyles and cultures, rather than from intermediaries like research and survey agencies.

Rio+20 has also succeeded in keeping the conference conceptually simple. Rio+20 focuses on two themes: a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and developing the institutional framework for sustainable development.

Climate change conferences and the global initiatives they have spawned aiming at adaptation and mitigation has brought a greater appreciation at all levels about adopting green technologies for achieving greener economies. More and more countries are embarking on the path of renewable energy generation and several Pacific Island countries are at the forefront of policy making and target setting for implementing renewable energy projects. Countries like the Cook Islands, Tokelau and Tonga have well documented strategies to achieve milestones.

But that is only the ‘pull’ factor, so to speak. There is a bigger ‘push’ factor that is driving these countries on that path. It is the continuing uncertainty wrought by the entrenched oil economy. The volatility of oil prices and the fact that it is so closely tied to such unpredictable elements as geopolitical stability, market forces, cartelisation and the sheer costs of moving it to remote locations like the Pacific islands has hastened the islands toward adopting strategies for alternative, unconventional energy systems.

Sustainability the central mantra

The key word in all this is sustainability. Be sustainable and you will be in a position to be more independent, self sufficient, economical, clean, green and prosperous.

Small vulnerable countries like most of the Pacific Island states would do well not merely to stop at adopting renewable energy sources driven chiefly by the uncertainty of the oil economy and spiraling costs of dwindling hydrocarbon based fuels. They should in fact do everything to delink from the oil economy as best as they possibly can. This means less dependence on imports that can be replaced quite easily with little intelligent effort locally.

For instance, adopting new grassroots level small and micro-farming techniques could collectively save the islands millions of dollars in foreign exchange, while promoting healthy practices of which islanders are so badly in need of. The islands have the requisite climatic conditions to grow a variety of fruit and vegetables on small scales at community and even family levels. It is just a question of adopting a sustainable, low resource using growing technique like the fish waste driven aquaponics. This simple technique is gaining impressive ground in water starved regions even in the developed countries such as the United States and Australia.

It will be interesting to see the outcomes of the deliberations on the adoption of green economies at Rio+20. Techniques like aquaponics that promote food security and therefore greater social equity as well as dozens of appropriate low cost, low footprint, high on conservation, sustainable techniques and technologies are being invented, reinvented, revived or tinkered with every day. It is hoped that initiatives like Rio+20 will help bring these to the fore.

What will be even more interesting is to see what progress is made on the second theme of the Rio+20 conference: developing the institutional framework for sustainable development. This is the important part that will make the wheel of sustainability turn to gather momentum toward a greener future. It is the part that deals with assisting national governments and global financial institutions to sit together and develop frameworks for financing, implementing and successfully running green technology initiatives.

Unlike climate change conferences, which have aimed at top down prescriptive initiatives based on unproven science that have big implications on national economies – mostly perceived negatively – which indeed is why no substantial agreements have been reached, the Rio+20 conference seems more grassroots level, bottom up, full of proactive initiatives in sharp contrast.

The ingredients for successful outcomes are all there. Making it work is as much an opportunity of decision makers at the highest level as it is for people at the grassroots level. For all our destinies are bound up together with the well being of the planet. We’re all stakeholders and our collective strategy can only be sustainable practices.


First appeared in Islands Business June 2012

Krishan vs Kanhaiya: A triumph for rational humanism

By Dev Nadkarni

It’s never easy to discuss some topics freely and frankly in a disparate group of people without having a polarising effect on the group or creating an unseemly controversy. That’s precisely why people like to steer clear of discussing politics or religion away from all formal conversations.

There are occasions when writers, playwrights and filmmakers deal with such topics and we often know what happens more often than not – protests, book burnings, bans on performances and censored scenes and passages from films. Death threats are not uncommon either.

Any attempt to deal with something as super sensitive as faith, religious belief and the idea of God itself in a controversial manner in a three-hour play could potentially quite easily go pear shaped. But Paresh Rawal’s Krishan vs Kanhaiya achieves this difficult task of discussing the most controversial issues threadbare through colourful characters with uncharacteristic chutzpah and guffaw-a-minute humour.

The core idea of Krishan vs Kanhaiya is far from an original one. It has been explored a few times before – the most well known essay being the English film “The Man Who Sued God”. There is also a Marathi play on the theme. But where the writers of the Hindi version that was staged in Auckland last month score big is in contextualising the idea to the least common denominator of Bharatiya Sanskriti.

Krishan (Rawal), an atheist antique seller who weaves the most imaginative tales around his artifacts with his glib tongue, finds himself left high and dry by the fine print of his insurance policy when a natural disaster strikes, decimating his antique shop. Invoking the force majeure or ‘hand of God’ clause, the insurer denies him the value of his loss in which instance Krishan decides to sue God.

Unable to produce God in a court of law, he makes religious leaders and the priests of temples the respondents. Weaving its way through dozens of hilarious situations peppered with the most frank and forthright discussion on socio-religious mores, which expose most of them for their utter irrationality, the script progresses at a clipping pace toward an exciting climax.

As well as holding a mirror to the irrationality of blind faith, the writers, through Krishan’s sparkling wit and crystal clear logical thinking, expose the unreal vice grip that religious establishments hold their believers and adherents in, with a strong dose of fear.

It is this irrational fear of the future that has built the religion into the world’s largest industry – except that it is not seen as one, which is all to the good of the wily, controlling mandarins of religious establishments big and small.

The play’s subtext quite explicitly brings to the fore the hypocrisy that lurks beneath the thin coating of religiosity in organised religion and makes it resoundingly clear that is always about the money and stark materialism (bigger donors get into privileged queues just as they get the opportunity to inscribe their names on bricks and suchlike than their materially poorer bretheren).

It is just as well that God decides to come down to earth to meet with Krishan the atheist in person – because despite his seeming atheism, Krishan is a practical, existential humanist. In every sense a more honest and a better human being than most persons who wear their religiosity on their sleeves, making a big deal of it – to which the theatrical God alludes.

Krishan vs Kanhaiya appeals to most people’s logic. Or else there wouldn’t have been gleeful clapping and lusty applause for Krishan’s acid observations on blatantly materialistic socio-religious mores as there were for his whacky sense of humour.

The performances were brilliant and the message delivered forceful enough to make any religiously inclined rational person sit up and churn it through their mind. It would undoubtedly make the religious establishment squirm uncomfortably because the play does not give it a leg to stand on.

The play is an intellectual, rip-roaring, well-executed triumph for rational humanism.


First appeared in Indian Weekender, June 2012

The hypocrisy of ‘cultural appropriateness’

Migrants need to be more inclusive than insular in their adopted countries – the case against a ‘culturally appropriate’ rest home

By Dev Nadkarni

About a month ago, someone called to ask whether I would like to express my opinion for a story in a mainstream newspaper on the idea of a ‘culturally appropriate’ rest home for elderly members of the South Asian community in New Zealand. Not only did the caller seem to be aware that my 90-year-old father is in a care facility, but also seemed convinced in their assumption that I was displeased with the facility.

I said I was perfectly happy with the care facility and its service and so was my father – who is physically severely disabled but mentally and psychologically fine – as well as my family. I also said I did not believe in the idea of a segregated rest home and care facility along ethnic lines. I do not believe that there is a need for a so-called ‘culturally appropriate’ rest home and care facility.

Here’s why:

People leave their countries of origin in search of a better life and make their homes in other countries of their own volition – well, in most cases anyway. Nobody denies them their need to stay in touch with their roots, religions and social mores in their new adopted homes. They build their own places of worship, their own shopping facilities, eating places and the like.

While some people would see this as migrants’ insular mindset, luckily most do not. These activities are rather seen as adding to the cultural diversity of their adopted countries – more and more people welcome it. But asking for a separate system along ethnic lines within the government’s long established system of services which is targeted at all New Zealanders equally is not only going too far but is downright insulting to the founding principles of an egalitarian society.

It’s akin to a group of guests telling their host that they don’t like the food they’re being served so they would like to cook their own food in the host’s kitchen while they are there and expect the host to pick up the expenses of their special menu. The host might oblige in the interests of politeness and civility but the relationship undoubtedly will be strained. So is there a way around it that would make both and guest happy? There is – and we’ll come to that in a moment.

Food is the biggest reason why the need for this ‘culturally appropriate’ facility is most felt. The other is cultural and religious needs and compulsions. The person who called me wanted to know if we were happy with the food that was served at my father’s facility. I said we had found a way around it.

For one, the number of ethnically diverse residents – particularly of South Asian cultural stock – has progressively increased. This has ended up in an increased frequency of food options catering to these tastes. Secondly, thanks to hordes of Kiwis leaving for jobs in Australia and elsewhere, there are vast numbers of caregivers who are from India, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, the Philippines and several countries in Asia and even Africa.

In fact, if at all anyone must clamour for a ‘culturally appropriate’ caregiver, it is the falling number of white New Zealanders at my father’s facility: at the dusk of their lives they’re having to make adjustments with a diversity of tastes and accents. But I have never heard such a clamour – which, indeed, is a measure of their feeling of inclusiveness as against the demand for a ‘culturally appropriate’ facility for South Asians, which reinforces the impression of the insular mindset associated with migrants.

Ethnic organisations that are promoting a separate care facility along ethnic lines must first exhaust other options before embarking on this insular path.

Most of these organisations are well established and have a track record for working with elderly migrants. They also seem to be well funded by national and local government programmes. So rather than spend their energies trying to raise funds for a facility that will host 35, 45 or at the most 50 elders of South Asian origin while leaving hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others to their own devices in other care facilities, they should come up with a strategy to cater to bigger numbers of such residents across all care facilities regionally and nationally.

Unlike governments in their countries of origin, the government and the political class in New Zealand is alive and responsive to such finer human concerns. It would therefore not be inconceivable to come up with a programme that could help take South Asian food and cultural services across a great number of facilities rather than just one dedicated facility to the exclusion of others. Such a programme would help serve large numbers across geographical areas, irrespective of whether they were of South Asian origin.

Now, going back to our example of the guests wanting to cook their own meals in the host’s home at the host’s expense. They would be far better off suggesting to the hosts that they would love to cook meals in their style for the whole household, adding diversity to their collective mealtimes. This is inclusiveness winning over insularity.

So there is no need to reinvent the wheel. When the Muslim community found that there were increasing numbers of Muslim students studying at the University of Auckland and they needed onsite prayer facilities, they canvassed for it and got it – they did not ask for a whole new ‘culturally appropriate’ place for tertiary education.

All too often the idea of ‘cultural appropriateness’ in misplaced. For instance, it is quite amusing to see community leaders of South Asian ethnicities in New Zealand proudly display the Queen’s decorations that they have been awarded here on occasions like their home countries’ Republic Day. How culturally appropriate is that!